12th Sunday of Ordinary Time
When I was attending parochial school, many, many years ago, the Sisters had us pray regularly for the conversion of Russia and China, placers where Christians were being persecuted and martyred for their faith. Those prayers also made us much more aware of the terrible situation of our brothers and sisters in Christ in those far off lands and helped us to experience the solidarity of the Church in her suffering. Had we not been taught to pray for the suffering faithful of those unfortunate nations, we would most likely not have been aware at all, at the time of our lives, of the reality of religious persecution in our day. Certainly, we were not going to learn of these things from the news broadcasters then, because the denial of religious freedom and the persecution of Christians for their religion were not big interest items for their news broadcasts. It’s not much better today.
So praying for persecuted Christians, in addition to the supernatural help our humble prayers provided for the persecuted souls themselves, also benefitted us children in two ways: first, it made us aware of the widespread persecution of Christians ignored by our media and government; and, secondly, it made us understand that we were united to those suffering people by our common humanity and even more by our faith, and that human and Christian solidarity obliged us to pray and one day work somehow for their freedom and for their human rights.
The fact that most of our national politicians and our national news broadcasters still do not really care much about religious freedom, at least for Christians, has been made abundantly clear in recent times. You may recall that during the first war with Iraq, Desert Storm, neither the news media nor the government got all that energized when American soldiers, who were defending Saudi Arabia from possible aggression, were denied the right to even use the Bible, or conduct private prayer services in their own quarters in the desert. Not many Americans knew then, or perhaps even know now, that our “ally” Saudi Arabia allows no religious freedom for Christians. However, everyone knows that Saudi Arabia has lots of oil, and so our politicians placed our national interest in their oil before the rights of our own military personnel to worship God as Christians. That outrageous decision made us cooperators with Saudi Arabia in denying Christians religious freedom, even while they stationed there to defend Saudi Arabia and the oil we need from that country.
Likewise, there continues to be only minor coverage from the media and little protest from our government regarding the ongoing persecution of Christians in China. Here our national interest in trade with China trumps whatever interest our leaders have in religious freedom, which is obviously very little. The economy is our only national interest when it comes to our dealings with China. Oh, the politicians will occasionally mouth a few minor objections to the way China treats Christians, but it is absolutely clear that the US government plans to do nothing of any consequence to promote religious freedom, or political freedom for that matter, because it might endanger our economic interests in China, which also happens to hold a huge amount of our national debt. It’s a kind of hostage situation on a grand scale.
Now we see our own government showing its contempt for the religious freedom of Christians. The present administration has chosen to mandate that Christians violate their religious freedom by violating their moral conscience when it comes to the new national health care law, where Christians who own businesses are forced by law to provide insurance that provides contraceptives, including the kinds that cause abortions. Other than priests and religious, or those who work directly for the Bishops, the rest of Christians must by law participate in insurance plans that cover such immoral services, and thus must pay for them in their insurance premiums. So much for religious freedom in this country.
So now we American Christians know by direct experience how Christians in many places, like Saudi Arabia and China, have long felt as a result of governmental persecution and abandonment by the Courts. Like the Apostles in the boat in today’s Gospel, we too are now riding out a storm that threatens us in our whole way of life – we fear this is just the beginning of the assaults on our religion – and we too like the Apostles may feel very alone in this struggle. Is the Lord going to wake from His sleep and somehow save us?
Of course, because we are Christians, our faith makes it certain that we are not really alone in the boat, for the Lord, who appears to us as sleeping, is nonetheless always with us, aware of our needs. But at times He does perhaps appear to be dead asleep and unconcerned about our fate. The Apostles evidently were thinking that when they waked Him. They thought unless they waked Him, He was not aware of their plight and directing the world He created. Confidence in His ever active providence is the ultimate test of faith for the martyrs of every age; the Lord may seem, like the rest of the world, not to care about what happens to us. But He does.
The whole point of the Gospel, and Christ’s rebuke of the little faith of the Apostles, is that the He who is with them in the boat is never unaware or unconcerned about what happens to His creation, and, above all else, what happens to His own disciples. If we really believe that the One who was in that boat is the Eternal Son of God, then we know that nothing escapes His providence, not even when He was asleep in the boat, or when He slept as an infant in His Mother’s arms. He was still at work, always at work, as the Word through whom all things were made, and the Wisdom of God through whom all things are rightly governed and directed to their appointed ends. Even if our family, our own brothers and sisters, or our closest neighbors do not care, God is there, and God’s loving will can never be frustrated.
But then, however, there comes the crunch. It may be that God’s will is that we accept the Cross the world has given us, as it was His will to accept the Cross given to Him by which we are redeemed. Maybe we will drown in fact, but we must absolutely trust that this is His will, that is, His will that we accept that this Cross is the result of His love, and not indifference. The proof of this love, for Christians, is always the love that led Jesus to Calvary. He has loved us unto His own death, so our suffering, our death cannot mean nothing to Him. Whatever He permits in our lives, it must be seen and accepted in the context of that awful and mysterious love that allowed Jesus to suffer Calvary, on our behalf, for our Eternal good.
This belief of Christians in the universal providence of God and the love that God has for all His creatures, and especially for those who have become His children in Christ His Son, is the great consolation in trials of very kind. The martyrs go to their death in peace, calmly, because they believe in this special love of the Father for the Son, and likewise for those who have become Sons of God in the Son. It is a love the world simply cannot ever understand, because the world knows indifference far more than love, and so the world naturally tends to attribute to indifference what it does not understand.
The Christian also does not understand at times and perhaps feels abandoned by everyone, as did Christ in the Garden. But the Christian truly believes and trusts in that same love that Jesus knew from the Father. It was never simply His own love of the Father that sustained Him, but above all it was His firm knowledge of the Father’s love for Himself that enabled Christ to be abandoned by all His disciples and fulfill the destiny of the Cross, where He was indeed alone, separated from everyone and everything, except this absolute knowledge of the Father’s love. That was all He needed to embrace the Cross, and to conquer it, and it’s all any of us really needs in order to accept and triumph over the crosses in our own life. This knowledge through faith and experience of the Father’s love sustained the martyrs of yesterday, and sustains the martyrs today. It is the life-giving refuge of all who are abandoned by this world.
Sp today, we are learning that unconcern by our society and government about religious freedom elsewhere endangers our own religious freedom here. It’s now become very clear that the same powers that care little about violations of religious freedom abroad, also have little respect for religious freedom here at home. It’s logical; it makes a certain perverted sense. So, the Catholic Church and observant Catholics are now confronted with an attack on our religious freedom by our government. Not only is there little protest by the secular powers, the media, the academy, the courts, the congress, but even many Catholics seem incapable of understanding just what is happening to their Church, and many seem to approve of it. What’s the big deal, they say, if Catholic institutions are forced to provide financial support for birth control and abortion? The question itself reveals how little religious freedom means to them, and how far down the road we are to losing other freedoms as well.
And so today we now must pray, like the children long ago, except now we also pray for our religious freedom, and in a special way we are praying during this “fortnight of freedom” sponsored by our Bishops. Hopefully this prayer will not only gain God’s grace in our struggle, but will make all Catholics more aware of the importance of this freedom and how it is being undermined by our government. And secondly it may give us an even greater sense of solidarity with the those everywhere in our world who are being persecuted for their religious faith, and hopefully it will move more and more Christians to get involved in this struggle for our own religious freedom. We might do well to remember the warning of a Protestant German pastor during the Nazi persecutions when so many did not care: they came for the Jews and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew; then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out. We need to speak out loud and clear, while we still have the freedom to do so.