There is a place near my home town in Ireland (Killoran, Balinasloe) called ‘The Bishop’s Chair’. My father brought me there a few years ago (14th Jan 2000). 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. 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 did die for the mass, because they were caught. But now all that sort of thing is in the past, right?
Just a few years ago in 2007, a priest friend of mine, who was my nextdoor 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 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 this line 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 contradiction to what we usually associate with what Jesus spoke about. ‘I have come to bring fire to the earth.’ What about peace and tolerance and all that? Preaching the message of Jesus Christ, which is about peace and justice, etc, brings persecution with it, because not everyone wants to hear it. The teaching of Christ is a very challenging teaching at the best of times. It confronts us when we are not living according to the Lord’s teaching and that often makes people angry. We don’t like to be shown up. No one likes to be confronted, but it is because the Lord loves us that He confronts us, to help us become better people. In the last 7 years, 23 priests in Mexico have been murdered, no doubt because they are speaking against the drug cartels, which are pure evil. They are challenging them with God’s word. They have the choice to turn back to God, or not. Instead many of them choose to kill the people God sends.
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 usually know what the right thing to do is, but sometimes we find it hard to choose it. And if we have done what is wrong, or if we are living in a way that is against what God teaches us, then we are not going to be happy with the teachings of Christ, because it will confront us, just as a parent will confront their child if they have done wrong. That is why the message of Jesus always brings persecution with it, because it challenges us to follow one path or the other. 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 the Queen 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). ‘I wish I was dead. I can’t go on.’ Who would blame them?
If you want to be faithful to Jesus, 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. I know of many parents whose adult children challenge them about their faith, but we have nothing to apologize for and we have a right to ask others, even our children, to respect what we believe, just as we try to respect what others believe. For our part, we just try to be faithful and live what we believe in, as best we can. We follow this path because we believe it is the most worthwhile path, the path that leads to God.
So each day we rededicate ourselves to God and we try to be faithful as best we can. It is not an easy path, but it is the most worthwhile path. We will meet resistance, but that is how the Lord said it would be.
‘I have come to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were blazing already.’