January 24, 2024 // Bishop's Column: In Truth and Charity

Persecution of Christians and the Ecumenism of Blood

The following is the homily delivered by Bishop Rhoades at the Melkite Catholic Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame on Sunday, January 21.

Every year, I look forward to concelebrating the Divine Liturgy with my friend, Father Khaled Anatolios, and to worshipping together with you, the Melkite Catholic community and friends here at Notre Dame. When I was at the Assembly of the Synod of Bishops this past October in Rome, I had the wonderful experience of meeting and getting to know many of the bishops and patriarchs of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches who were all delegates at the synod. At the end of the month, in the synod’s synthesis report, we affirmed how the Eastern Catholic Churches enrich the whole Church and that our unity in diversity is something we should all be grateful for. All of us, Latin and Eastern Catholics, are mutually enriched by our respective traditions within the family of God, the Church.

The first reading today, from St. Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy, was probably written while Paul was under house arrest or in prison in Rome, not long before his martyrdom. Paul encourages Timothy to remain faithful to what he has learned from him. In fact, he lists nine elements of Timothy’s following him. St. Paul writes to Timothy: “You have followed my teaching, my way of life, purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, and sufferings, such as happened to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra, persecutions that I endured. Yet from all these things the Lord delivered me.”

You may recall from the Acts of the Apostles the persecutions St. Paul endured in his missionary journeys. A persecution broke out in Antioch in Pisidia (not Syria), and Paul and Barnabas were expelled from the city. They then went to Iconium. Because of their preaching, enemies plotted to have them stoned, but they escaped to Lystra. In Lystra, St. Paul was actually stoned and dragged out of the city. 

In his letter, St. Paul is reminding Timothy of all these things to encourage him to be steadfast in the faith, to be ready for persecution and suffering. He writes, “In fact, all who want to live religiously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” These are sobering words. “All who want to live religiously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” These are words for us to ponder. How do they apply to us? This past week, you may have seen that I released a report from the USCCB committee I chair, the Committee on Religious Liberty. It’s the first annual report we have done on the state of religious liberty in the United States. The report summarizes developments this past year in the area of religious liberty at the federal level here in our country, and we look at the five largest threats we foresee in this new year. In our increasingly secularist culture, with ideologies particularly hostile toward the Catholic Church, we need to be aware of, and guard against, these threats.

Some speak of what we face as a kind of “soft persecution.” You may have already experienced this – not just criticism for your Catholic faith and values, but even some hostility. We have had dozens of acts of vandalism to Catholic churches this past year in our country, especially because of our pro-life teaching and advocacy. Notice that St. Paul says that “all who want to live religiously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” We don’t have to worry about this if we don’t want to live religiously in Christ Jesus. We can just go along with things that are against our faith, but that’s not what the Lord asks of us. He said: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” and “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.”

St. Paul and the saints and martyrs of the Church chose to live religiously, to take up their cross and follow Jesus. To do so requires the Holy Spirit’s gift of fortitude in the face of criticism, ridicule, hostility, and especially outright persecution that so many Christians face in our world today. In fact, there are more Christians in the world today who are being persecuted than in the first centuries of Christianity.

360 million Christians today live in nations with high levels of persecution or discrimination. That’s 1 in 7 Christians worldwide, including 1 in 5 in Africa, 2 in 5 in Asia, and 1 in 15 in Latin America. We only have statistics from 2022, and things have gotten worse in many places since then. Back in 2022, more than 5,600 Christians were killed for their faith. More than 124,000 were forcibly displaced from their homes, and almost 15,000 became refugees. The persecution and martyrdom of Christians is often the work of fanatical terrorists but also often by governments of countries where the Christian community is a small minority, like in North Korea. Or governments that are lax in protecting Christians from terrorist attacks, like in Nigeria.

Who can forget from nine years ago the 20 kneeling, young Coptic Orthodox Christian men, migrant workers from Egypt, and one African man, kneeling on the beach on the Libyan coast, wearing orange jumpsuits used by ISIS for prisoners, executed like St. Paul by beheading? They died praying, “O Lord Jesus.” They would not deny their Christian faith to save their lives.

And what about the young African? His name was Matthew Ayariga. We’re not sure if he was from Ghana or Chad, or even if he was definitely a Christian. But we do know that, before he was beheaded, he was given an opportunity to save himself when ISIS questioned him about his faith. Matthew responded saying, “Their God is my God.” He was probably a Christian, and if he wasn’t, he became a Christian through the baptism of blood. I wanted to mention these martyrs also because something historic happened this past year. Pope Francis, with the approval of the Coptic Orthodox Church, included them in our Catholic Martyrology. The feast day of these 21 martyrs is February 15.

The annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity began on Thursday, January 18. Sometimes we can be discouraged by the lack of significant progress in ecumenical endeavors, but I think it is good to call to mind what Pope St. John Paul II many years ago called the “ecumenism of martyrs.” There is a deep level of communion among those Christians who have testified to Christ by the sacrifice of their lives. While we Christians on earth still live in an imperfect communion with one another, the martyrs in heaven already live in full and perfect communion. Pope Francis has spoken of this as an “ecumenism of blood.”

In next year’s Jubilee, Pope Francis will repeat what Pope John Paul II did in the Jubilee Year 2000 when he led an ecumenical celebration at the Colosseum and remembered the Christian martyrs from our different churches and ecclesial communities. They were killed simply for being Christians, not according to their denomination. Pope Francis has established a commission at the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints called the Commission of the New Martyrs – Witnesses of the Faith. This commission is doing historical research and gathering testimonies of the lives of hundreds of Christians who shed their blood for Christ since the year 2000. This research will concern not only the Catholic Church but will extend to all Christian denominations.

In a world where at times it seems that evil prevails, it is good that we learn about the faithfulness and goodness of these martyrs who overcame evil and triumphed over it because God in Christ has conquered sin and death. They give us hope and inspire us to courage. This is something that unites all of us who are Christians – the hope that comes from faith in Christ as witnessed by the martyrs.

May we all take to heart the words of St. Paul: “All who want to live religiously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” As St. Paul encouraged Timothy, may we hold firm to the faith! May we love and support all our brothers and sisters who suffer for the faith today, remembering them in our prayers and providing assistance through advocacy and material aid. And, as we pray for Christian unity this week, let us remember the “ecumenism of blood” and ask the martyrs to intercede for the restoration of unity among all Christians, the unity they share in the Communion of Saints in heaven!

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