One of the great figures of the 19th century who became a convert to Catholicism was Blessed John Henry Newman. He ended his life as a cardinal, a far cry from how he began it in his native England. His monumental writings offer a keen and profoundly Catholic analysis of faith in the modern world and the demands that authentic faith makes upon us as believers.
In the Victorian England of Newman’s time, as now, Anglicanism was the established religion. Amid all the pomp and privilege of what seemed like Christianity’s domination of the Western world, Newman offered a critique of the distortion that is done to Christianity when it is reduced to worldly categories or is conformed to the accepted social mores of the age. He also recognized the growing divide between Christian belief in divine revelation, on the one hand, and the growing indifference, skepticism and hostility to that belief in modern society.
Newman confronted comfortable Victorian Christianity with the assertion that Jesus himself was the first Christian martyr who gave testimony to the truth, and that every age until the end of time is an “age of martyrs.” Through God’s grace, Newman says, you and I have in us the martyr’s spirit.
This is a prophetic and important message for us to contemplate in 2015, as we look at Christianity in the United States and throughout the world. Today, “martyrdom” is misused by terrorists who employ the word to describe their acts of murderous suicide. The Christian meaning of martyrdom is a loving and non-violent “witness” to the truth of Christ and the Gospel. Church tradition speaks of both the “white” martyrdom of those who suffer the world’s wrath and pay a price for being true to the faith and the “red” martyrdom of those who do so to the point of shedding their blood.
In the United States there has always been a prejudice against Catholicism, but our nation’s Constitution and the rule of law ensured the freedom to practice and teach the Catholic faith privately and publicly. We now face a real and growing threat to our religious freedom, as a church and individually, in the public square and in public and professional life. We can expect increasing coercion to conform to grave offenses against the right to life, for example, and to the legal fiction of homosexual marriage.
Whatever our challenges in this country are, however, they pale in comparison to what is happening to Christians elsewhere. Pope Francis says: “Today we are dismayed to see how in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world many of our brothers and sisters are persecuted, tortured and killed for their faith in Jesus … In this third world war, waged piecemeal, which we are now experiencing, a form of genocide is taking place.”
One monitor of religious freedom summarizes it this way: “From Syria, Iraq, Iran and Egypt to North Korea, China, Vietnam and Laos, from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, from Cuba, Columbia and Mexico to Eritrea, Nigeria and Sudan, Christians face serious violations of religious freedom. Persecution ranges from murder, rape and torture to repressive laws, discrimination and social exclusion.”
A case in point: Almost 1.5 million Christians lived in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Now three-fourths of the country’s Christians are believed to have fled or died as a result of conflict, and those who remain are being pursued by ISIS. These are Chaldean Catholics – our brothers and sisters in the faith. Sadly, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that only hundreds of visas have been granted by the U.S. government to the many thousands of Iraqi and Syrian Christians seeking asylum.
I urge everyone to take to heart, in prayer and action, the dire situation of persecuted Christians throughout the world, especially in the Middle East. To learn more, click “Religious Liberty” under “Issues and Action” at our U.S. Bishops website, usccb.org.
Cardinal Newman insisted that Christianity is not a matter of appearances, conventional morality or sentimentality. It’s about being true to Christ and the Gospel in the face of hostility, persecution and even death. Like him, may we not doubt that if we are open to the grace of God we will be given a martyr’s spirit to hold fast and to be faithful to the end.