There is a place near my hometown in Ireland (Killoran, Balinasloe) called ‘The Bishop’s Chair’. My father brought me there once (14th Jan 2000). It is a hard place to find as it really is 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 priests 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. A mass rock was a large rock used as an altar. Many priests did die for the mass because they were caught. But now all that sort of thing is in the past, right?
A few years ago in 2007, a priest friend of mine, 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 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 this time we don’t live with that kind of persecution in this country, thank God, but we are living with a different kind of persecution, where our faith and our Church is constantly being undermined, 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. In China there is the official Catholic Church, controlled by the Communist party and then there is the underground Catholic Church. 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. Why, because 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 God’s will and that often makes people angry, because 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, which we call concupiscence. We often know what is ‘the right thing to do’, but we find it hard to choose it. St. Paul writes: ‘I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do. What I hate, I do’ (Rom 7:15). This is the struggle within us. Even extraordinary people like St. Paul also struggled with the same temptations, which is good to know. No one is exempt.
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 show us up. That is why the message of Jesus always brings persecution with it, because it challenges us to choose 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 help us to become the best version of ourselves.
I always find it comforting 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, because 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, who is considered the greatest of the prophets, 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), or as we would say, ‘I wish I was dead.’ Who would blame them?
If you want to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus it will cost you. Not everyone in your family is going to like it. Sometimes it makes people feel guilty about their own life and they will take it out on you. Many people have shared with me about children in their own families who mock them, or sometimes spouses. It is always cruel when it comes from those closest to us, but that’s exactly what Jesus said would happen: ‘From now on a household of five will be divided; three against two and two against three.’ 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. ‘In the world you will have trouble. But do not be afraid. I have conquered the world.’
I think it is also worth remembering that we don’t have to defend the Church. The Church can defend itself. ‘The Catholic Church is full of corruption and hypocrisy’ Yes that’s true, but that doesn’t take from the teachings of the Church and that’s the only thing that matters. Show me any Church, or organization that doesn’t have corruption and hypocrisy. I got an angry email from someone once, pointing out more hypocrisy and corruption in the Church. I replied by saying, ‘If you want to find scandal in the Church, you have two thousand years of corruption to choose from.’ The corruption doesn’t take from the fact that it is God’s teaching coming through his Church. There has always been hypocrisy and corruption and there always will be, because the Church is the people of God and the people of God are sinful people.
I also think it’s good to demand respect, when others are being disrespectful to you. ‘I respect what you believe, or don’t believe and you should have respect for what I believe, whether you accept it or not.’
For our part we just try to be faithful and live our faith 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. Not everyone understands us, but 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.’