Jesus, our strength

Christians are being persecuted today as much as at any period in history. ISIS blatantly is targeting Christians with their terrorist attacks. Drug cartels in Central and South America threaten and kill clergy and religious who speak out against their practices or stand up to their pressure tactics. Much of the ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe and Africa has targeted Christian sects.

Both of our first two readings address the reality of persecution of Christians. St. Luke describes an event in the early days of the church in Acts of the Apostles, "When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and with violent abuse contradicted what Paul said." John, in the Book of Revelation, describes his vision of heaven with its great multitude from every people, tongue and nation. As he gazes upon the saints in heaven, one of the elders says to him: "These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb."

It should not surprise us that Christians have been persecuted in every age and that they will be persecuted until the end of time. Jesus warned His disciples on numerous occasions that since He was persecuted, they should expect the same.

In the United States, the persecution is usually more subtle. The attack is on our Gospel way of life. It comes from many angles and sources. The right to freedom of religion protected by the First Amendment is under siege on several fronts, including through the Affordable Care Act. It is enormously sad that so many Americans fail to grasp how offensive it is to force the Little Sisters of the Poor (and so many other Catholic and Christian communities and organizations) to pay for contraception for their employees.

In addition, the efforts in our government and in our culture to redefine marriage, rupture the dignity of human life at its weakest moments and make a mockery of the virtue of chastity are but a few examples of modern day persecution of Christians in America.

So, where do Christians go for refuge during these tumultuous times?

We fly into the arms of Jesus.

Jesus, our Good Shepherd, is at our side through every trial. He protects us with His strong right arm and guides us to verdant pastures. In today's Gospel, Jesus lovingly says to us: "My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me." Jesus remains intimately close, particularly in the Eucharist. He knows us better than we know ourselves. If we pay attention to Him, we hear His voice and know His comfort. In turn, we are motivated to follow His loving commands.

Our Lord goes on to say, "No one can take them out of my hand." His strength is beyond comprehension. He will never leave us abandoned. His grace empowers us to remain strong and to rise above our human frailties. We become capable of forgiving with His generosity, loving with His fire and serving with His humility.

The Lord's amazing desire to be our strength in times of tribulation is wonderfully manifest in the life of Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan and his companions. The cardinal, imprisoned by the communists in Vietnam for 13 years and forced to endure horrible living conditions, recounts how the presence of Christ in the Eucharist was an incredible source of strength for so many. After celebrating Mass in secret at night, he would reserve the Blessed Sacrament in small paper cartons. "My Catholic companions and I took advantage of the breaks in order to pass the small sack to everyone in the four other groups of prisoners. Everyone knew that Jesus was in their midst. At night, the prisoners would take turns for adoration. With His silent presence, the Eucharistic Jesus helped us in unimaginable ways. Many Christians returned to a fervent faith-life, and their witness of service and love had an ever greater impact on the other prisoners. Even Buddhists and other non-Christians came to the faith. The strength of Jesus' love was irresistible."

In times of persecution, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is our strength.

Fr. Peterson is assistant chaplain at Marymount University in Arlington.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016