I would not be a Catholic today without having received the grace of God’s mercy

Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you (falsely) because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. (Mt 3:12)

Recently a research report was issued entitled “In Response to Persecution” by the Under Caesar’s Sword project. It concludes from a three year study that 60% of cases of global religious persecution and 80% of acts of religious discrimination are directed against Christians. In 2015 7,100 Christians died for their faith including by beheadings and other abhorrent means.

In part thanks to the Knights of Columbus the U.S. State Department has labeled the persecution against Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria as genocide, the intentional effort to exterminate all Christians.

This evil mission was carried into Egypt when on Palm Sunday just a few weeks ago two Coptic Christian churches were severely damaged by ISIS suicide bombers killing 45 people. In Nigeria one anti-Christian group has “destroyed over 200 churches, internally displaced 1.5 million people, created 200,000 refugees, inflicted 13,000 deaths, and kidnapped and made sex slaves of Christian women.” Similar evil actions are occurring in Asia, Europe and the Americas, even to a real though lesser degree in our own country.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl in commenting on the report noted four responses we who do not face such physical persecution should undertake: 1. Make this horror better known, 2. Urge action by governments and agencies to respond to it especially the underlying causes such as poverty, 3. Support material and other assistance to those whose lives have been threatened and disrupted, and 4. Pray for those suffering and for a conversion of heart for those inflicting such atrocities.

While paling in comparison to such painful and dehumanizing physical persecution, subtle forms of persecution exist in our own culture. For instance the condition that if a nurse is to offer a healing touch in certain hospitals that will only be permitted if the nurse assists in abortions even though it would violate religious belief and freedom of conscience. A person will be permitted to speak on a college campus but only if the speaker accepts a particular ideology even though it would violate religious belief and freedom of conscience. This list could go on to include government mandates, discriminatory regulations and media distortions. What ought to be our response to these subtle threats?

An interesting finding of this study is: “Christian responses to persecution are almost always nonviolent”. Our human tendency is to strike back. Not to do so takes courage and faith, virtues Jesus modeled in his Passion we just recalled in Holy Week. The willingness to forgo retribution is grounded in the Christian theology of redemptive suffering which includes standing for truth without compromise while exercising forgiveness not vengeance.

Saint John Paul II raised up the importance of this response by establishing Divine Mercy Sunday. He personally exhibited this virtue and calling while living under the brutal regimes of Nazi Germany and Soviet communism in his homeland of Poland. We just completed a Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis. He called us to show mercy to others because we are so in need of mercy ourselves. As Christ declared from the Cross, God’s mercy is ever present for us when we open our hearts to this grace. In response we ought to be instruments of that divine mercy in our relations with others.

Exercising mercy is hard when the evil one encourages us to strike out, to take an “eye for an eye”. Yet Pope Francis reminded us in his words on Divine Mercy Sunday:

“The Risen Jesus passed on to his Church, as its first task, his own mission to bring the concrete announcement of forgiveness to everyone. This visible sign of his mercy brings with him the peace of the heart and the joy of the renewed encounter with the Lord.
“Well, we can know it through the experience of mercy! The latter opens the door of the mind to a better understanding of the mystery of God and of our personal existence.
“It makes us understand that violence, rancor, revenge make no sense, and that the first victim of this are those who experience these feelings because it deprives them of their dignity. Mercy also opens the door of the heart and allows us to express closeness, especially with those who are alone and marginalized, because it makes them feel like brothers and sisters and children of one Father.
“Let us never forget that mercy is the keystone in the life of faith, and the concrete form in which we give visibility to the resurrection of Jesus.”

What forgiveness and mercy allow is to own up for our sins and mistakes, learn from them, and use these hard earned lessons in future endeavors.

If we are stuck in our past sins as some demand, then Peter would still be paying the price for denying Our Lord three times. St. Paul would still be paying the price for persecuting the first Christians including the fatal attack on St. Stephen. The sacrament of Penance, confession, would be an empty gesture.

The words of absolution state it so boldly:

‘God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit.’

I would not be a Catholic today and certainly not a priest without having received the grace of God’s mercy for sins and mistakes of my past. On my episcopal coat of arms is a symbol of that forgiveness: a golden sun which reflects the Son. It is a continuing reminder of this undeserved gift.

That freeing experience I seek to bring to my reactions to circumstances and the decisions I make not only as a bishop but as a person and as a brother in Christ. This approach often results in bafflement or frustration, or outright criticism. I do the best I can to leave judgment to God. This skeptical reaction is a price worth paying in response to the price our Lord suffered on the Cross for me and for all us sinners who are invited despite our failings to become saints. One mission of priests is to offer healing and hope and new life in Christ.

“Let us never forget that mercy is the keystone in the life of faith, and the concrete form in which we give visibility to the resurrection of Jesus.”

Bishop Swain's Column, May 2017