There is a place near my home town in Ireland called ‘The Bishop’s Chair’. My father brought me there a few years ago. It is a hard place to find as it really is out in the middle of nowhere. This ‘chair’ which is in the middle of a field, was where at least two bishops, between 1679-1701, ordained many priests in secret. At the time it was illegal to be a Catholic priest and if they were caught they could have been executed, so they had to ordain them in secret. It is very moving to visit it even though there is not much to see today, but just to think of the sacrifice that so many men and women were prepared to make at that time, to pass on their faith. Priests were prepared to risk their lives so that the people could have the mass, because they had the faith to believe that the mass was everything, because in it we have the gift of Jesus himself. The people were prepared to risk their lives by going to mass. The mass had to be celebrated in secret, often on what were known as ‘mass rocks’ out in the countryside. Many priests died for the mass because they were caught. But now all that sort of thing is in the past, right?
Well a few years ago in 2007 a priest friend of mine called Ragheed Ganni, who was my next door neighbour in the Irish College in Rome for a year and a half, was shot dead after celebrating mass in Mosul, northern Iraq. He was just 35 years old. He had been threatened several times but he remained on in his parish in order to be there to celebrate mass for the people, even though he knew the danger. On the Sunday after Pentecost in 2007 after celebrating mass in the parish church Ragheed and three deacons were ambushed by several gunmen. They forced them out of the cars they were driving and shot all four of them. Persecution for our faith is never far away.
At the moment we don’t live with that kind of persecution in this country, thank God, though we are living with a different kind of persecution, where our faith and our Church is constantly being put down, mocked and lied about. Maybe it seems strange that something like the Christian faith, which preaches peace and justice, love of neighbour and respect for all people, should face such ongoing persecution? And it still does in many parts of the world. Then we have these lines in today’s Gospel:
I have come to bring fire to the earth... Do you suppose I am here to bring peace on earth? No I tell you, but rather division.
This line seems to be a bit of a contradiction to what we usually associate with what Jesus spoke about. What about peace and tolerance, love and mercy? Preaching the message of Jesus Christ, which is about peace and justice, etc, brings persecution with it, for the simple reason that not everyone wants to hear it. The teaching of Christ is a very challenging teaching at the best of times. It shows us up when we are not living according to the Lord’s word and that often makes people angry. We don’t like to be shown up. It says in John’s Gospel: ‘People have preferred darkness to the light, because their deeds were evil’ (Jn 3:19). There is a tendency in us which draws us to what is wrong. We often know what is ‘the right thing to do’, but we find it hard to choose it. And if we have done what is wrong, or are living in a way that is against what God teaches us, then we are not going to be happy with the teaching of Christ because it will confront us. That is why the message of Jesus always brings persecution with it, because it challenges us to our face to follow one path or another. There is no middle ground. But perhaps what is most important to remember is that the Lord’s teaching, difficult though it often is, is there to help us, because the Lord knows what will make us blossom.
I always find it consoling when I read about the calling of any of the prophets in the Bible. Nearly all of them resisted. And even if they didn’t resist initially, they usually asked God after a while if they could quit, as it was so difficult. They suffered for speaking the truth about God. The prophet Jeremiah said: ‘You have seduced me Lord and I have let myself be seduced... For me the Lord’s word has meant insult and derision all day long’ (Jer 20:7, 8b). The prophet Elijah, after working one of the most extraordinary miracles then finds himself on the run because Queen Jezebel is trying to kill him and he says: ‘Lord, I have had enough. Take my life, I am no better than my ancestors’ (1 Kg 19:4-5). Who would blame them?
If you want to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ it will cost you. Not everyone in your family is going to like it. Many of the people you work with won’t like it. But that is no reason for us to be afraid, because the Lord assures us that He is with us and that He will help us. For our part we just try to be faithful and live what we believe as best we can. We follow this path because we believe it is the most worthwhile path, because it is the path that leads to God. So each day we rededicate ourselves to God and we try to be faithful to the path that He points out to us. It is not an easy path, but it is the most worthwhile path. And if not everyone understands us that’s ok. That’s how the Lord said it would be.
‘I have come to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were blazing already.’