When I was attending parochial school, many, many years ago, we used to pray regularly for the conversion of Russia and China where Christians were being persecuted and martyred for their faith. Those prayers made us much more aware of the terrible situation of our brothers and sisters in Christ in those far off lands, and prayer helped us to experience the solidarity of the Church in her suffering. Had we not been made to pray for the suffering faithful of those unfortunate nations, we would not have been aware of the reality of religious persecution in our day, because the denial of religious freedom, and the persecution of Christians for their religion, were not big interest items for the news managers in our society then, and still is not a hot issue for them today.
So praying for persecuted Christians, in addition to the help of our prayers for the persecutred themselves, also benefitted us who prayed 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 bound to those suffering people by our common humanity and by our faith which obliged us to pray and work for their freedom and their human rights.
The fact that most of our national politicians and our national news managers still do not really care about religious freedom, at least for 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 upset when American soldiers, who were defending Saudi Arabia from possible aggression, were denied the right to even use the Bible, or conduct private services in the desert. Saudi Arabia, of course, has no religious freedom for Christians, but it has lots of oil, and so our national interest in their oil made us cooperators with Saudi Arabia in denying our own military the right to worship God as Christians, so long as they remained there to defend the oil we need from that country.
Likewise, there continues to be little coverage from the media and little protest from our government – from our government over the ongoing persecution of Christians in China, especially since that country became a major trading partner with us. The economy is our only national interest there. Oh, the politicians mouth a few condemnations now and then, but it is clear that the US government plans to do nothing of any consequence to promote religious freedom, or political feredom for that matter, because it might endanger our economic interests in China, which also holds a huge amount of our national debt.
As a result of this silence and inaction on the part of the powers that be, most Americans seem unaware that Christians are being persecuted in China, or that Christians have no religious freedom in places like Saudia Arabia, where we are still poised to ask our soldiers to be ready to die for the Saudi’s independence, and their oil. Note that there is no campaign to end religious persecution in China as there was on the part of the media, our government and political activists to end aparteid in South Africa, a campaign that succeeded in gaining political freedom for the disenfranchised majority of native South Africans. Why do we not see the same effort when it comes to religious freedom of billions in China and the Muslim countries? Because religious freedom does not eman much to those who control the media and those who rule in our government.
As a result the Christians in China, and other places, today must feel very abandoned. Like the Apostles in the boat in today’s Gospel, they are riding out a storm that threatens their very lives, and they must feel very alone. Of course, because they are Christians, they know they are not alone in the boat, for the Lord is always with them. But at times he must seem asleep, and unconcerned about their fate. That 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 them.
But the point of the Gospel is that the one who is in the boat is never unaware or unconcerned about what happens to his creation, and above all what happens to his 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 slept in the boat, or slept as an infant in his Mother’s arms. He was still at work as the Word through whom all things were made, the Wisdom of God through whom all things are rightly governed and directed to their appointed ends. Even when our neighbors do not care, our own brothers and sisters, God is there, and God’s will cannot be frustrated.
But then 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. Here we can only trust that His will that we accept the Cross is the result of love, and not indifference. The proof of this love, for Christians, is the love that led Jesus to Calvary. He has loved us unto His own death, our suffering, our death cannot mean nothing to Him. Whatever he permits in our lives, it must be seen in terms of that awful love that suffered Calvary on our behalf.
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, because they believe in this special love of the Father for the Son, and for those who have become Sons of God in the Son. It is a love the world cannot understand, because the world knows indifference more than love, and naturally tends to attribute to indifference what it does not understand.
The Christian also at times does not understand, feels abandoned by everyone, as did Christ in the Garden. But the Christian believes and trusts in that same love that Jesus knew from the Father. It was never just his own love of the Father that sustained Him, but above all it was his 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 alone, separated from everything, except this knowledge of the Father’s love. That was all he needed to embrace the Cross, and it’s all any of us needs in order to accept the crosses in our own life. It sustained the martyrs of yesterday, and sustains the martyrs today. It is the life-giving refuge of all who are abandoned by this world.
Today, we are learning that unconcern about religious freedom elsewhere endangers our own religious freedom here. It’s becoming clear today 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 interest or protest by the secular powers, but even many Catholics seem incapable of understanding what is happening to their Church, and many seem to approve of it. What’s the big deal, they say, if Catholic institutions ar 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 also pray, but now for our religious freedom, and we pray in a special way during this fortnight of prayer sponsored by our Bishop. Hopefully this prayer will not only gain God’s grace in our struggle, but will make us 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 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.