WHAT IS PERSECUTION?
Persecution generally means suffering oppression, hostility and ill-treatment, because of your race or political or religious beliefs. It can mean suffering harassment, isolation, imprisonment or even death. Christianity has a long history of persecution right from the very beginning. St. Paul started his life as a great persecutor of the early Church, but later he became one of those most persecuted for the Faith. It is difficult to know exactly, but it has been estimated that since the beginning of the Church, over seventy million believers have been killed for their faith. Forty five million of them were in the 20th century according to a recently published book. In modern times, with the rise of fundamentalism and religious terrorism, some 200 million Christians live in dangerous situations and are vulnerable to persecution, mostly in Iraq, the Middle East and Asia. However, history has proved that the greater the persecution, the stronger the Church becomes.
SUFFER FOR DOING GOOD
The Bible refers to persecution in several places. Jesus knew beforehand that His followers would face persecution after His death so He wanted to assure them that their suffering would not be in vain. In the Sermon on the Mount, He said “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10) This is saying that when you suffer for doing the right thing you will be rewarded. 1 Peter 2:20 says “How is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.” This suffering for doing right could be because we profess Jesus as the only Savior of the world or when we stand up for the truth. It may be because ours is the voice for justice, or we stand up for the poor and the downtrodden who can’t speak for themselves. Such an uncompromising stand on our part will inevitably invite a reaction from those who are powerful or who have vested interests but if we run away from the face of threats, our cowardice will gain us nothing.
SHARE CHRIST’S SUFFERING
Peter 2:21 tells us, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” This means when you are called to represent Jesus, suffering will be an integral part of it. If we try to imitate Him and want to share in His glory, we should be prepared to share the suffering and humiliation that He underwent. Suffering and glory are two sides of the same coin. Jesus warned his disciples that He had to suffer in order to fulfill the will of His Father and redeem the world. We see Jesus’ submission to God’s will while He was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and just before His death on the cross.
PROUD TO SUFFER
There are many people who have faced humiliation and persecutions for their faith in Jesus. Some of them have overcome these very difficult and testing times and have emerged with a stronger faith. At one time a group of youngsters came me after their house mates had threatened them and made fun of them for going to Holy Mass regularly. But these threats did not frighten or deter them from their convictions. In fact the greater the ridicule, the bigger became their resolve. They defied the threats and carried on as before. They felt very happy for the opportunity to stand firm in their faith and felt proud to suffer the ignominy for the sake of their Saviour and have the honour to witness to Him in the face of adversity. They are many similar edifying life models among the younger generation.
STAND IN SOLIDARITY
But actual persecution has a much wider dimension in real life. It has a global perspective and implications besides personal witnessing. Hundreds of the faithful are facing much greater persecution in their daily lives in many countries around the world. Their very own survival is at stake and their whole families are facing elimination. They have done nothing wrong nor did they hurt anyone, their only crime is that they have chosen to take the right route in life by following the way of Christ. Their suffering is also our suffering and we should stand in solidarity with them as we pray that they will be given the strength and courage to continue to declare Jesus as their living Lord. “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” (Matthew 5:11-12) The apostles were threatened and warned not to preach the Gospel or talk about Jesus but the human threats of harm did not bother them; it only strengthened their resolve to keep going with their evangelizing mission.
OUR SOURCE OF STRENGTH
The cross is the ultimate source of comfort and strength for people who are facing persecution and rejection through no fault of their own. They can receive courage and hope from the cross to help them to withstand the agony and torture. Our pain will never be greater than the pain of Jesus on the cross. When we join our suffering to His divine suffering, we will feel relief, as the Lord of the cross will take our burdens on Himself. In this way we will renew our lives by being washed in the blessed blood of the innocent lamb. This will empower us to overcome our weak sinful nature and be bold in proclaiming our allegiance to God.
OFFER UP YOUR SUFFERING
If people ridicule you for trying to lead a holy life, remember you are not the first one. In fact you have a reason to rejoice, because through it you are being drawn closer to your creator. Offer all your concerns to your ever loving Father and offer your pain at the sacrifice of the Holy Mass, then you will have no room to despair. If you have ever rejected Jesus, like St. Peter did three times, it is time to repent and like St. Peter, get back fast into His fold. He is merciful and will accept us with open arms. When our suffering is undeserved, the sublime example of Jesus can inspire and strengthen us, then we will make our call meaningful to God.
NEVER GIVE UP
My dear young friends, if you have been treated unfairly for being a Christian, or have been made fun of for believing in God or for practicing your faith be assured that it will produce a great blessing and consider it a great privilege to be persecuted for Christ. Never give up or be tempted to go back to your old ways when you face such situations, instead continue to work for the Lord with renewed strength and courage. Don’t reject Him but cling on to Him more tightly and proclaim that Jesus is your personal Lord and Saviour. The crown of martyrdom for Jesus is the highest glory. Most of us will never face such a challenge in our lifetime but we will get lots of opportunities to show God’s love and share His mercy with our less-privileged brothers and sisters. We will be able to do that only when we live in tune with the Gospel. Suffering, grief and loss are all part and parcel of our lives and enduring and surviving them, without losing faith in God, is most important. What matters is how we face these difficulties and how we overcome them. Great gifts await those who are successful; they will have the highest reward of reaching heaven and seeing God face to face for all eternity. This reward is infinite unlike our finite life of suffering on earth.
DO NOT BE AFRAID
The Word of God tells us never to be afraid of the challenges and trials in life. If our faith and trust in the Lord is firm, we will be honoured, raised and rewarded unimaginably. In difficult times, we will be supported by God’s Holy Spirit and by the prayers of our Holy Mother, Mary, the Saints and the Martyrs who have gone before us.
“we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because god’s love has been poured into our hearts through the holy spirit that has been given to us.” Romans 5: 3-5
Written by Fr Soji Olikkal