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Pity for the Persecuting World

03/01/2013 Comments (3)

A reader writes:

I noticed you quoted an email you received from a reader once, so I figured it might be a good idea to share some thoughts with you. Maybe you can use it in an article. If not, that's fine.

On the Catholic blogosphere, I see a lot of good Catholic writers talking about the perils of modern evil and what the moderns seek to do to the Church. I have no doubt, as I am sure you have no doubt, that the worst of the persecution is yet to come. And this, for any decent Catholic, is to some extent something to fear.

That is, to some extent. I mean to address here not the fact that those with God on their side have nothing to fear, although that is undoubtedly true. I mean even in a more practical sense, we should not be threatened by our enemies. Look at the state of the society that seeks to persecute us: massive piles of government debt; an entire generation so intellectually castrated by relativism that they cannot even tell right from wrong; politicians who are no more than worthless demagogues; a rapidly aging population and falling birth rates; and so on. My point is this: Western civilization as we know it is on an inevitable course to destruction. The attempts to persecute the Church are nothing more than attempts to bring us down with them. It's like a suicidal man punching in the face the man that tries to keep him from killing himself.

This is not to downplay the possibility that so many of us will be jailed or killed for our faith sometime in the future if things go on like this. This is not to minimize any of the suffering the faithful have experienced thus far and will experience in the future. But is this really something to fear? It's not frightening. It's pathetic.

We will survive as we have so many times before. But their days are numbered. They have to worry, not us. God is on our side.

One of the striking features of the New Testament is that it is written by people who constitute a tiny, out-gunned, persecuted minority with no earthly prospect of ever amounting to a hill of beans--and who speak with pity of the people who are busy running them out of town, beating them up, and murdering them in cold blood.  We see Stephen praying for the people stoning him to death.  We see Paul say things like "But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope."  And Paul and Stephen aren't coming up with that on their own.  They get it from his Master who tells his flock things like, "You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and kinsmen and friends, and some of you they will put to death; you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But not a hair of your head will perish" and who likewise speaks with pity from the cross about his brutal murderers, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."  This peculiar combination of certitude about the world's hatred for disciples of Jesus and their weirdly confident sense of pity for these same persecutors is on stark display in some of the stories of the martyrs, most notably Perpetua and Felicity:


3. Moreover, for the young women the devil prepared a very fierce cow, provided especially for that purpose contrary to custom, rivalling their sex also in that of the beasts. And so, stripped and clothed with nets, they were led forth. The populace shuddered as they saw one young woman of delicate frame, and another with breasts still dropping from her recent childbirth. So, being recalled, they are unbound. Perpetua is first led in. She was tossed, and fell on her loins; and when she saw her tunic torn from her side, she drew it over her as a veil for her middle, rather mindful of her modesty than her suffering. Then she was called for again, and bound up her dishevelled hair; for it was not becoming for a martyr to suffer with dishevelled hair, lest she should appear to be mourning in her glory. So she rose up; and when she saw Felicitas crushed, she approached and gave her her hand, and lifted her up. And both of them stood together; and the brutality of the populace being appeased, they were recalled to the Sanavivarian gate. Then Perpetua was received by a certain one who was still a catechumen, Rusticus by name, who kept close to her; and she, as if aroused from sleep, so deeply had she been in the Spirit and in an ecstasy, began to look round her, and to say to the amazement of all, “I cannot tell when we are to be led out to that cow.” And when she had heard what had already happened, she did not believe it until she had perceived certainsigns of injury in her body and in her dress, and had recognised the catechumen. Afterwardscausing that catechumen and the brother to approach, she addressed them, saying, “Stand fast in the faith, and love one another, all of you, and be not offended at my sufferings.”

4. The same Saturus at the other entrance exhorted the soldier Pudens, saying, “Assuredly here I am, as I have promised and foretold, for up to this moment I have felt no beast. And now believe with your whole heart. Lo, I am going forth to that beast, and I shall be destroyed with one bite of the leopard.” And immediately at the conclusion of the exhibition he was thrown to the leopard; and with one bite of his he was bathed with such a quantity of blood, that the people shouted out to him as he was returning, the testimony of his second baptism, “Saved and washed, saved and washed.”Manifestly he was assuredly saved who had been glorified in such a spectacle. Then to the soldier Pudens he said, “Farewell, and be mindful of my faith; and let not these things disturb, but confirm you.” And at the same time he asked for a little ring from his finger, and returned it to him bathed in his wound, leaving to him an inherited token and the memory of his blood. And then lifeless he is cast down with the rest, to be slaughtered in the usual place. And when the populace called for them into the midst, that as the sword penetrated into their body they might make their eyes partners in the murder, they rose up of their own accord, and transferred themselves whither the people wished; but they first kissed one another, that they might consummate their martyrdom with the kiss of peace. The rest indeed, immoveable and in silence, received the sword-thrust; much more Saturus, who also had first ascended the ladder, and first gave up his spirit, for he also was waiting for Perpetua. But Perpetua, that she might taste some pain, being pierced between the ribs, cried out loudly, and she herself placed the wavering right hand of the youthful gladiator to her throat. Possibly such a woman could not have been slain unless she herself had willed it, because she was feared by the impure spirit.

The spectacle of the victim giving his killers a ring as a token of his martyrdom or a woman calmly helping the jittery gladiator do his office was deeply unnerving to the Roman populace and had no small influence in helping the spread of the Faith, not in spite of, but because of, persecution.  The blood of the martyrs is indeed the seed of the Church.  Not surprisingly then, our own century has seen more martyrs--and greater growth in the Church--than any previous age. Hell is the epitome of sin and sin makes you stupid.  So the devil just keeps trying the same tactics again and again because he never learns.  Kill Jesus and he rises again.  Kill his Church and the Church grows and turns even its enemies into the next generation of believers, as the man who used to be Saul of Tarsus will tell you.

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About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.