Based on recent events, the question of persecution has come up in a lot of Catholic circles I frequent. As both government and society continue to become more secular, what will the Church do? While there have been varying debates as to what kind of protection the Church will need, all tend to agree that, in the coming age, the Church will need the protection of the Holy Spirit far more than in previous eras. Given this, what does that protection look like?
While it may seem so, this isn’t just some academic discussion. Based on how that protection functions, Christians will have to make certain choices. The Propers for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost can help provide us with some answers. The Introit begins with describing God as a light. Light is often the best form of protection. If you can see something, you can also know to avoid it. This is the first way in which God provides protection to the Church, and I would argue it is the most powerful form of protection. Through baptism, we are given the grace to not only know right and wrong, but to understand it at a deeper level than without grace. It is not by chance Ecclesiastes was viewed the work which understood human nature the best by the novelist Thomas Wolfe. Throughout the centuries people from all religious traditions have sought out saints such as Augustine, John of the Cross, Benedict, Francis, and others for guidance on how to live a good life.
The Introit also portrays God as protecting the Church despite overwhelming odds. “If armies in camp shall stand together against me, my heart shall not fear.” One could say that proof of the Church’s divine institution lay in the fact that throughout history some of the most powerful empires in existence have dedicated themselves to her destruction, and all of them failed. Even today we see governments and society in the west adopting anti-Christian values and rhetoric, and the tale of the tape looks like a gigantic mismatch. When we think that, we should take comfort in that God protected the Church during those times as well.
While God protects us, we should always take care not to misunderstand that protection. Often that is confused with a sentiment that we will be able to live comfortable lives without any pressure from the outside world. Some even start movements within the Church seeking to create these circumstances. While these individuals might be noble in their intent, they are naïve. St. Paul makes clear that in spite of this protection, there will be suffering, and at times, we should even expect a lot of it. The Epistle speaks of the “groaning” that all of creation (us included) endures as we wait “the redemption of the body”, which is consummated by the return of Christ.
Elsewhere, the Offertory verse asks God to open our eyes, so that our enemy can never take advantage of us. In Sacred Scripture St. Peter describes the devil as a “roaring lion” always on the prowl. Likewise, in times of persecution society is always looking for a pretext to ensnare and persecute Christians. If we retreat from the world entirely, the world will follow us to where we retreat to.
If our “protection” only leads to suffering, hardship and a need to constantly be alert, what good is that protection? In the future we Christians will have to consider this question carefully. As persecutions pick up (as they always do throughout human history) people will ask this question. What’s the point of being a Christian and having God’s protection if all of this happens?
The answer is provided in the Gospel, which recounts the calling of St. Peter to be an Apostle. During Peter’s work as a fisherman Christ approaches him, and asks that Peter set out “into the deep” to fish. Most fishing took place in waters relatively close to the shore. To go out into the deep was to head into the unknown. He was leaving his comfort zone. When he leaves for the deep to go fishing, he finds more fish than he knows what to do with. Christ used this as a way to foreshadow the rest of Peter’s life: he would be heading out far beyond his village and his comfort zone in carrying out Christ’s work. It is that work that Christ has guaranteed will always continue, and the gates of hell cannot prevail against. Notice that Christ never said “the gates of hell will be unable to try to stop you.” Only that they wouldn’t prevail.
Knowing these facts, we can see that God’s protection exists so the Church, that means me and you, can do our job. Our job is to be fishers of men, gather souls and bring them to God. If we are a missionary Church, it doesn’t matter how hard the persecutions are, they will never stop the Church’s mission and activity. Indeed, it is often during times of the darkest of persecutions that the Church thrives. That thriving doesn’t necessarily consist of numbers, but we know that lots of saints with a profound impact on later generations came from times of great trouble. When those persecutions abated, many times the Church was far more cohesive and stronger because of that protection. So as we face the prospect of a society that is hostile to the Cross, we should prepare, but that preparation should be to head out into the deep to continue the mission Our Lord entrusted to the Church.