Dear Fr. Joe: I’m reading and hearing about all the horrible things happening to Christians in the Middle East and I don’t know what to do – how do we respond to this as Christians?
The situation for Christians in the Middle East is dire. Catholics suffer and die for their faith all over the world in real, tangible ways. For this article, I’m going to focus on the Middle East, as that is where the suffering of our brothers and sisters is most intense and somewhat public.
The suffering of Christians in the Middle East is not theoretical: it’s very real. Reports from that region inform us that Christians are being hunted, trapped and killed like wild animals. Christians are being forced to watch their children starved, taken from them and treated in unspeakable ways. This is happening because they will not abandon the faith we share with them.
I imagine that many of us read or hear about this and feel shock: How could this happen? Why would people deliberately seek to destroy others for their belief in Christ?
First, I invite us to remember that evil is real. Evil exists and is a very strong force in the world. Too often, we forget the reality and power of evil and we attempt to find reasons for things like this when they happen. Evil destroys – that’s what it does. It is incapable of doing anything else. Our best response to evil is not to attempt to intellectualize it or jump into political “answers,” but to pray. Into this situation in particular, I invite us to ask the Blessed Mother to pray. St. Bonaventure once wrote, “Men do not fear a powerful hostile army as the powers of hell fear the name and protection of Mary.” Whenever we encounter evil, the prayers of the Blessed Mother are particularly important.
Beyond this, Mary is the right choice for intercession because of another reason – she watched Christ suffer on the cross. She didn’t look away or run away – she stood at the foot of the cross. Now, you and I are invited to stand there with her. We are watching our brothers and sisters suffer and die, and the powerlessness that we feel in our desire to help can be a strong connection for us to share with her.
So, we don’t intellectualize the experience, and we commit ourselves to pray. Beyond this, we can choose to offer a gift of penance for our brothers and sisters in the Middle East. We can choose to deprive ourselves of some element of our life that we like, but don’t need and then, every time we think of what we are offering as penance, we’ll pray that God bless, strengthen and save those who suffer for our faith. We also can use our penance as a way to show our sorrow for those days in the past when people experienced suffering and death for their faith at the hands of Christians.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably got some rage going on as well. The desire to inflict violence on those who would so brutally inflict suffering and death on others is a natural thing. However, we need to pray into the violence in our hearts. Jesus did not respond with violence while he was being tortured and killed for our sake and neither must we. We must pray and allow the Holy Spirit to strengthen our understanding of the way we are connected with all of God’s family throughout the world.
Finally, I invite us to remember those who suffered and are dying for our faith.
The names of most of those who died will be unknown to us. The destruction that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is inflicting is complete and, because of that, some names will be lost to us until heaven. If that blessed moment comes for us, too, when we see God face to face, we will know them and thank them for their love, their hope and their faith.
But not all the names of these martyrs will be lost. Some names will come to us through testimonies, stories in the news and other means. As Catholics, we take a particular joy in gathering those names and placing them deep into our Catholic consciousness. We will then hold those names in our hearts forever, praying with and for them at our Masses until the day when Christ returns. They will serve as examples we can offer our children and will inspire people for the rest of time. Their courage, their faithfulness and their devotion will be our fuel to grow in holiness and fall deeper in love with Christ.
Though we will not meet them until heaven, we will encounter them each time we offer the Mass. We will see their hearts in his heart; we will taste their blood as we drink his. We will behold the bread broken and remember the bodies broken and we will pledge to never, ever take the Eucharist for granted again. We will pledge with all we have and are to offer God whatever he asks of us and to do so with hearts filled with joy that he would give us such a privilege as to suffer for him. We will do so without complaint and without regard to our bodies, our reputations or our worldly goods because we’ll hold that which we lose as “rubbish when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ.” (Phil 3:8)
May the faith our brothers and sisters in the Middle East hold be ever strong in our hearts.
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