There is little doubt that the situation for Christians in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Kenya, and other countries is dire. The number of martyrs for this year alone has reached well into the thousands. In the West attacks on Christian conscience have left multiple business owners with no livelihood or exorbitant fines. To the person who is paying attention to the times, there can be little doubt that the persecution promised by Our Lord is very real in our present age.
A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master; it is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Be-el’zebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.
Matthew 10:24-25 (RSV)
Persecution of the Church has been a reality since the beginning of the Church. If Our Lord and Savior was crucified, what makes us think that our fate should be any different? That persecution may come in a variety of forms, but one thing that is certain, there will be periods in our lives in which we will be maligned for our faith. In those moments we should turn to Our Heavenly Mother. She is the Mother of all Christians and she is the Mother of the persecuted.
Mary’s entire life was marked by the impending crucifixion of her son. In the very moment that Our Lady and St. Joseph went to present Jesus in the Temple, it became clear that her life would be touched by deep sorrow. Simeon told her that “a sword of sorrow will pierce your heart”. (Luke 2:29-30) In his book, The Little Book of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Father Raoul Plus, S.J. points out that Mary knew what this meant. She had spent her life learning the prophecies about the Messiah and knew Isaiah well. She knew that a bloody and violent end awaited that baby who was snuggled up so tightly against her. She knew martyrdom awaited her son and spiritual martyrdom awaited her at the foot of the Cross.
Most of us who are mothers do not know what awaits our child or children, as Mary did. We do not live with the deep reality that we will witness the torture and murder of our children. For many women in the world this has become a reality. In those regions marked by persecution and violence, many mothers have had to endure this pain, and many have undergone martyrdom along with countless men and children by their side. Many mothers do not understand how intricately sorrow and joy are united in motherhood. It becomes apparent when we lying beside our child in a hospital bed wanting nothing more than to suffer in their place. It is made plain early on in motherhood through our self-sacrificial love. It is in that love where we are pierced. What do we do with all of this pain and sorrow? What do we do in the face of persecution?
We must allow Mary to show us how she endured such tortures in her constancy with her Son. We must remember that suffering and persecution are a part of the Christian life. This truth is so very difficult and it is one that many of us do not want to face. The reality is, however, that when we read the Scriptures, when we listen to Our Lord, we know this is truth. If we love Jesus, then we desire to follow Him, even unto the Cross. How can Our Mother’s example help us in those moments of pain and persecution, even in our own families?
Mary was the first disciple. She followed her Son from birth until her Assumption. She witnessed the vitriol and verbal attacks leveled at Jesus throughout His ministry. “She kept all of these things hidden in her heart.” She observed and meditated in those moments Christ was under attack. She held firm, even as her very child was being verbally assaulted by the Pharisees and crowds. There will be moments when we will be mocked and abused for our faith. Family, friends, media, politicians, and others will attack us for our allegiance to Christ. They will not understand how we could abandon the things of this world, for the next. These words will cut us like a knife. It is painful to be attacked by people we love and trust, or worse threatened by the world. Remember Mary. She was steadfast, she trusted in Christ, she hoped in Him. Most Christians will endure this type of persecution within their lifetime. We will lose friends, family, co-workers. People will abandon us for our choice to follow Christ. In those moments ask Mary to guide you and help you persevere on the journey to her Son.
In the West, the most common form of institutional persecution is judicial, economic, or social injustice. This can be seen through the increasing court cases related to issues of traditional marriage and contraception. The Little Sisters of the Poor have been persecuted for their belief that contraception is gravely evil and many small businesses have been put out of business for their beliefs in traditional marriage. Careers of people sitting next to us in the pews are being threatened or destroyed. The unimaginable is happening in our own backyard. The rate that all of this has occurred is breath-taking.
Mary lived under the shadow of immense sorrow at what would occur when Jesus turned 33 years of age. She watched him as a child in great joy, but always pierced. She also watched so many people turn from His message. This too caused her great sorrow, because she loves with the heart of Her Son. In the end, we must pray for the conversion of souls. We must pray for those who persecute us and try to love them as Christ loves them. We must not be crushed under the weight of institutional persecution. There is always hope. We must focus on our eschatological end, Heaven, and doing the will of the Father.
From the purification to Calvary, Mary was at each moment of her existence prey to limitless sorrow; but she was never crushed, never without animation or spirit. A profound joy accompanied her at every instant; an invincible serenity suffused her personality.
What was the source of this joy and serenity if not her absolute radiant acceptance of the Father’s every wish? Like Jesus, she could say, “My meat is to do the will of the Father who is in Heaven,” that is to say, “The divine will is the marrow of my existence, its very essence.”
Like Our Mother, our joy springs forth from doing the will of the Father and in loving as the Father loves. It is in self-sacrifice and service, even to those who persecute us.
For certain regions of the world, martyrdom has once again become a reality. Recently, 5000 Catholics were martyred in Nigeria and the martyrdoms at the hands of ISIS are a regular occurrence. It is difficult for many of us in the West to comprehend such horrors, but we must understand and unite ourselves to the rest of the Mystical Body. We are all united. All 1.2 billion Catholics, and others, are united as one body through the Eucharistic Presence. When one person within the body suffers, we all suffer. When men, women, and children are murdered, we suffer with them. We suffer as Mary did at the foot of the Cross. If we love as Christ loves, we mourn the martyred and we pray for the persecuted.
This month of May, which is devoted to Our Lady, is a good time to pray for the persecuted and martyred. There is no one who understands the suffering of martyrdom more than Mary. She stood and watched her tortured Son die on the Cross. So we must ask her to be with the persecuted members of the Church and to wrap her loving mantel around those who are to be martyred. She points all to her crucified Son. It was as her Son died on the Cross that she was given as a Mother to us all, and so it is in moments of persecution that we can cling to her as a loving Mother who knows our suffering.
When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
John 19:26-27 (RSV)
We too must take Mary into our own home and into our heart. She is our model of perseverance in the face of persecution. She will help lead us to her Son. She loves us with the heart of a mother and the heart of Christ. Pray for the persecuted. We never know if a day will come in which we too are persecuted. We are disciples of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, who died for love of us.