24th Sunday: The Courage to be Catholic
These are tough readings this Sunday. They begin with the third of four passages from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah usually called the Servant Songs. These songs may have originally referred to a particular prophet or to the people exiled to Babylon. The Church sees them as pointing directly to Christ. We use all four passages during Holy Week as prophetic declarations of what would become a reality on Good Friday. The first two songs speak about the call of the Servant. In the first the world is introduced to the Servant. He will become the eyes for the blind. He will free the captives from prison and bring light to those in darkness. The Church sees this as a reference to Jesus as the Light of the World. In the second Servant Song, the Servant himself speaks. He says that he has been called from his mother’s womb to bring salvation not just to the people of Israel but to the whole world. The Church sees this as referring to God’s plan that took place through Mary, and the mission of the Church to bring the Gospel to the ends of the world. The Fourth Servant Song reads almost like a description of Good Friday. The Servant is despised and rejected, a man of sorrows. He takes our sins upon himself and is crushed for our offences. By his wounds, we are healed. He will die, but then his life will be restored.
Today’s passage is from the Third Servant Song. It is very difficult to hear. The servant is treated horribly. People beat him, and pull his beard. They hit him in the face and even spit on him. All this hurts the servant, but it doesn’t make him change what he is saying and doing. The servant has his mind set on doing God’s will. He may be hurt physically and emotionally. He may be mocked by those around him. But the servant is not going to change from what God is asking him to do. And he knows that as long as he is faithful to God, God will be with him throughout his life. Why should he be concerned with what others are saying about him or doing to him? Anyone who is attacking him is attacking the mission that God has given him, and, ultimately, attacking God.
That is why Jesus calls Peter “Satan” in today’s Gospel reading from the Gospel of Mark. Peter recognizes that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, but when Jesus applies the Servant Songs to himself and says that He is going to suffer and be killed and then rise from the dead, Peter says, “No way.” Only a devil would interfere with the mission God the Father had given Jesus. Then Jesus teaches that there are more important things than the values of the world. Jesus calls His followers, He calls us, to put Him before everything else in the world, even our own lives. “He who loses his life for my sake and that of the Gospel will save it.”
Following of Jesus Christ is serious business. It is not a matter of just being a member of a faith. It is not just a matter of observing various rules and regulations. It is not just a matter of knowing the beliefs of the faith. Christ is calling us to more than this. He is calling us to be completely sold on His Kingdom. He is calling us to put Him before everything else in the world. That means being mocked because we take our faith seriously. That means being hurt because we refuse to join a crowd that is more pagan than Christian. That means being spat on, and hit in the face, and even dying for the sake of Jesus Christ.
That might sound extreme, but it isn’t extreme. We are blessed to be Americans. Freedom of religion is the first amendment to the Constitution of our Country, the first of the Bill of Rights. It is sad that the present government has issued a challenge against this freedom, but I am convinced that Catholics in the United States will not allow this to stand. Most other faiths in our country support us. The First Amendment applies to all, Catholics included.
Freedom of Religion is not a right throughout the world. Catholics and Christians in Moslem and Hindu countries are often persecuted. Some are put to death. Catholics and all Christians are called to courage.
I want to tell you about a courageous Catholic who lived 450 years ago in England. His name was Edmund Campion. He was, perhaps, the brightest light of the Golden Age of England, the age of Queen Elizabeth I, 1558-1603. This was the age of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe and Francis Drake. The queen herself heard Edmund Campion speak when he was a young man, and gave him special preferences. She appreciated his intellect and scholarship. Edmund’s life could have been rich and, outwardly, wonderful, but Edmund could not live with himself. The more he studied, the more he was drawn to the Catholic Church. He realized that he was putting his own welfare over the mission of Christ. You see, by the time Edmund became an adult, it was considered treason for anyone to worship in a Catholic Church. Treason was punished with the harshest of penalties, hung, drawn and quartered. All Catholic priests were to be arrested as traitors to the queen. Yet, Edmund knew that to deny the teaching of the Catholic Church would be to deny Jesus Christ. He was afraid of dying, but he could not reconcile his fear of death with the need to use his intellect to foster the Kingdom of the Lord. So he left England and became a Jesuit priest. He returned knowing that he would be called upon by the many Catholics hidden secretly throughout England, to speak to them and to guide them in the faith. He also knew that wherever he went, there would be spies ready to turn him into the authorities. He was caught by the queen’s men shortly after one of his talks and was tortured and murdered as a traitor in 1581. He is now St. Edmund Campion, alive with the Lord, still guiding the faithful of England to hold on to the truth.
At this present time, we American Catholics do not have to fear this type of persecution. That does not mean we do not have to have the courage to stand up for our faith and lifestyle. Because this is an election year, people throughout the country are criticizing Catholics for promoting one candidate by demanding that the other protect the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights, as he swore he would do three and a half years ago. This is just one area where we have to have courage. There are people in your neighborhood, at your work, in your schools, who mock you for your beliefs. There are people who claim to be Christian who insult you for being a Catholic dredging up all sort of false anti-Catholic arguments like, “You really don’t believe in scripture," or "You worship Mary," or "You don’t have a relationship with Jesus.” There are people who boast that they are good, but who are furious with you when you say that you are not going to get drunk, take drugs or do that which belongs only within the commitment of marriage.
One of our young girls went before an admissions board for one of our countries most prestigious medical schools and was mocked because she said that she would not take part in performing abortions. Needless to say, they did not accept her, even though she had a high Medcat score. Another had her place in graduate school jeopardized for a similar reason. One of our young men was excluded from a promotion because he was not a team player. This happened after he refused to join the other guys at a convention who were doing things that a married Christian man should not do.
Following Jesus is always going to have a cost to it. That is because good is always going to be opposed by evil. To make matters worse, evil may appear to be the norm, the manner of living of a majority. Notice I said appear, because I really don’t believe that the majority of people do evil. It is just the minority who do that which is wrong but who try to convince others that their actions are what everybody is doing. Still, the vocal minority can wear on us. That coupled with our constant need to control ourselves, can lead us away from truth in the
black hole of sin.
Yes, even here in the United States, it takes courage to be a Christian, a real Christian. It takes courage to be a Catholic, a true Catholic, one who is not going to compromise on the Truth that is Jesus Christ. It takes courage to sell out for the Lord. It takes courage to live the Lord’s words in today’s gospel” “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.”
The Lord never said that we would be in the majority. Nor did He ever say that following Him would be easy. But He did promise us this: if we follow Him, He would be with us, supporting us, caring for us, and winning the final battle over evil for us.
We pray this week for the courage to be Catholic.