Preparing spiritually for persecution

As you know, each month I celebrate Mass at one of our parishes for the intention of Respect for Life. With good reason, we associate this movement primarily with the issue of respecting life from conception until natural death. Always protecting the most vulnerable person in our society, we speak out against the evils that violate human life as we lobby our politicians to forbid such grave injustices.

While so many of our brothers and sisters around the world live in places where religious freedom is restricted, or worse, eradicated, we are blessed to live in a nation in which this fundamental human right is inscribed in our Constitution. From its founding, this great nation has served as a sanctuary for countless people seeking refuge from oppression, especially oppression towards religion. It has been a place in which people from diverse religious backgrounds experience what Pope Francis has termed "a culture of encounter." At the core of many current threats to religious liberty - from limits of free speech on college campuses to the mandated coverage of contraceptives and abortifacients in healthcare - is a challenge to the biblical revelation of the purpose of human sexuality, the nature of marriage and the inviolability of human life in all of its stages.

Yesterday we witnessed a very real and serious attack on the institution of marriage, that sacred union in which all human life has a right to begin and be protected. The unique reality of marriage as the union of one man and one woman is inscribed in our bodies as male and female. The protection of this reality is a critical dimension of the "integral ecology" that Pope Francis has called us to promote" (USCCB statement). Yes, I realize why we can be heavy of heart and anxious at a time when the fundamental beliefs of human life, sexuality and marriage are being challenged and our religious beliefs being threatened in a nation known for religious liberty.

For the fourth year in a row, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has set aside these two weeks between June 21st and July 4th for prayer and reflection regarding religious liberty in our nation. We call it the Fortnight for Freedom. In our nation over these past few years, we are seeing increasing threats against practicing our faith openly in the public sphere - threats that are so real and so immanent that we are left to ponder the reality of the question: "How are we to prepare spiritually for persecution?"

Our readings offer us three answers to this question, three words by which to answer: readiness, memory and faith.

First, readiness: readiness to meet the Lord. In our first reading, we find a telling detail: "While the day was growing hot." In the heat of mid-day, the Lord visited Abraham in the form of three visitors. Today our political situation feels akin to this day that is "growing hot." And yet, we are called to be vigilant and ready to receive the Lord - in whatever form He may choose to visit us.

Second, memory. We prepare ourselves by developing our memory of the Lord's goodness to us. We repeated in our responsorial Psalm the words of the Magnificat, "The Lord has remembered His mercy." Yes, the Lord remembers His mercy to us, even as our calling to mind the Lord's goodness to us should be a daily practice.

Today the threats to religious liberty give us so much apparent legitimate cause for worry, anger and even despair. Yet these are not marks of a disciple. Instead, in a time when we have a "hunger" for greater freedom; a "hunger" for a political climate that honors marriage more fully; a "hunger" for protection for our brothers and sisters in the Middle East who face a very real persecution today; in this time, we must deepen our memory.

Today, if we were to go looking for a memory-building program, we would find a textbook, method or audio book which promises to build our memory. But we are called to something greater than the ability to recall facts and figures - in this time of greater persecution, it is critical that we build our memory of the Lord's goodness. We are called to a paradox: to be people of gratitude in a time of persecution.

Third, faith. In our third reading we encounter the radically simple yet deep faith of the centurion, who said in the words we paraphrase every time we receive Holy Communion, "Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed." Jesus is so amazed by this direct act of faith that He says, "Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith."

The centurion's trusted servant was home, "suffering dreadfully." The centurion did not resign himself to his servant's likely death. The centurion took a dramatic step of faith: leaving the comfort of his home and his Roman social setting, and seeking out Jesus.

It is not a stretch to describe our religious freedom as paralyzed, lying sick and suffering dreadfully. It undoubtedly is for those Christians in the Middle East who must flee the persecution of ISIS. Increasingly here, as hinted in Supreme Court arguments last April and touched on in Justice Thomas's dissent yesterday, our own religious freedom is in doubt.

Like the centurion whose words have entered into the very lifeblood of our celebration of the Mass, we are called to recognize ourselves as "unworthy to receive Him," even as we step out in faith.

Readiness, memory and faith: Through these practices, we orient ourselves to God's love and truth, and in this way not only prepare ourselves spiritually for persecution, but also prepare ourselves to continue to work towards a society that is ordered to God's divine order - a society of peace, justice and freedom. During this Fortnight for Freedom, and throughout the coming year, let us ready ourselves to act as Christians in a world so desperately in need of God's love, ready to face the forces that work against us, knowing the goodness and faithfulness of Our Lord as we defend the liberty to bear witness.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015