Blessed are those who are Persecuted for Righteousness Sake; Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven
Can you imagine – at fourteen years of age – facing execution because of your faith in Jesus? This was the choice faced by young St. José Sánchez del Río in 1928, at a time when anti-Catholic persecution was rife in his homeland of Mexico. Practicing the Catholic faith was prohibited. To attend Mass or receive the sacraments meant risking your life. Yet José remained determined and steadfast, making his faith a real priority in his life, no matter what the cost. He even became involved in Cristeros, a movement which sought to defend religious freedom in Mexico. One day, when the movement was involved in a clash with federal forces, José gave his horse to one of the movement’s leaders so he could escape: “You are more needed for this cause than I am,” were his incredibly magnanimous words.
The leader escaped; José did not. He was captured by federal forces and subjected to torture. He resisted. Changing tact, they tried to persuade him to renounce his faith in return for things like a privileged place in a renowned military school or a new life in the U.S, but José’s love for Jesus burned too fiercely in his heart and he remained firm. They cut the bottoms of his feet and made him walk barefoot to the place of his execution, yet still he proclaimed, “Long live Christ the King!”
Fourteen years old. I could barely say ‘Boo’ to a goose at that age.
There are countless other examples of men and women, children, the young and the old, who faced huge persecution because of their love for God. We can think of teenagers like St. Philomena, who refused to renounce her faith in Jesus – and the vow she had made to Him – when the powerful emperor, Diocletian, desired her in marriage. We can also consider the huge numbers of Christians throughout the world who even nowadays risk their life to practice their faith. Pope Francis reminds us of a shocking fact: “Today’s martyrs outnumber the martyrs of the first centuries”!
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:10). The final Beatitude. It also draws in the subsequent verse, “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Mt 5:11). To live as a disciple of Jesus will bring us everlasting happiness and fulfillment. But Jesus was also very frank: it will cost you to follow me, He warned His listeners. He warns us too. “If you were of the world, the world would love its own, but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (Jn 14:19). What can we understand ‘the world’ to be? Not the goodness and beauty in the world around us – be that in people or in creation – for the true, the good and the beautiful can only come from God – but anything or anyone that acts contrary to His will.
To grow in holiness and virtue is to ‘shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life’ (Phil 2:15/16). I recall hearing how people became less enthusiastic about the coming of electricity to Ireland once they realised that candlelight hid a lot more: the bright light possible even in the night-time showed up any dirt which the day’s labours had not fully tackled! Similarly, though many are drawn to conversion of heart and mind upon seeing the witness of holy lives, others will react very negatively to someone else’s ‘bright’ life of holiness revealing their own inner darkness, their hidden life of sin which could be markedly different to the nicely polished social media profile they broadcast to the world: “For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed (Jn 3:20). For many, it will seem much easier to hate you for your witness than face up to their hidden darkness. You will challenge their way of life, remind them of the God-shaped hole in their heart, show up the emptiness of their life – and they may not thank you for it.
I find myself thinking of the story of Daniel in the Old Testament here, which became a firm favourite of mine when the depth of his integrity was revealed to me by a great teacher. An ‘excellent spirit’ was in him, drawing the favourable attention of King Darius (Dan 6:3) and the bitter jealously of some of his officials: ‘Then the presidents and the satraps sought to find a ground for complaint against Daniel with regard to his kingdom; but they could find no ground for complaint or any fault, because he was faithful, and no error or fault was found in him’ (Dan 6:4). So, instead, they contrived a new law forbidding worship to be made to anyone but King Darius. Daniel, of course, could not abide by this rule. He didn’t berate the officials or seek revenge; he didn’t even make any kind of fuss. He simply ‘went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber opened toward Jerusalem’ (Dan 6:10) and he prayed as he always did. He didn’t hide. He prayed where he could be clearly seen, knowing full well that it was highly likely he would be caught. He clearly didn’t fear death or persecution; all that mattered to Him was remaining faithful to God at whatever cost.
Note that the jealous officials couldn’t find any error or fault in Daniel, no matter how hard they tried. When interpreting this Beatitude, a note of caution is needed. In Pope Francis’ stunning and thought-provoking words: ‘..we…have to be careful not to read this Beatitude from a self-commiserating, victimised perspective…mankind’s contempt is not always synonymous with persecution…when we lose the taste of Christ and the Gospel, there is also contempt which is our fault.’ Sometimes, Catholics act and speak in ways contrary to the Gospel – this can be incredibly easy to do. We might practise our faith religiously and perform countless works of mercy for others yet fail to allow Jesus to truly transform our hearts, with the result being that no one SEES Him in us, neither in our words or in our actions; as such, they remain unmoved. Why did the lives of the saints prompt so many to turn their lives back to God? Because the power of His grace moving in them was so incredibly powerful that it radiated out to them too and touched their hearts. We can so easily convince ourselves that we are being persecuted for our faith in Jesus, yet our lack of integrity, virtue or holiness could be the true cause – as could rash, unconsidered or thoughtless words or actions.
When St. Peter exhorted his readers to ‘have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have’, he included a critically important caveat: ‘But give it with courtesy and respect and with a clear conscience, so that those who slander you when you are living a good life in Christ may be proved wrong in the accusations they bring’ (1 Pet 3:15-16). Courtesy, respect, a clear conscience. If we sincerely desire to draw others to Jesus, these are three vital ingredients. To cultivate them, we seek to grow continually in the grace Jesus won for us through His passion and death on the cross. Unflinchingly, we surrender even the deepest, darkest parts of us to His luminous light, in full confidence that He can transform us. If we persevere in this, then we can face up to any persecution thrown our way and remain faithful to Christ. We will be able to say confidently, ‘…it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’ (Gal 2:20).
Another important point. This week’s readings remind us of the bold words of Jesus’ disciples at the Last Supper when they swore they would persevere with Jesus to the last, yet mere hours later, they abandoned Him at His hour of greatest need. We might believe with great conviction that we would never behave as they did, that we would never forsake Jesus if persecution hit, yet people’s response to persecution can often – and easily – be great compromise, forsaking all they know to be good, true and beautiful. It would be dangerous to assume our response will be different; much wiser, rather, to put our complete faith in God and seek to grow continually in His grace, knowing that on our own we cannot accomplish anything in the life of discipleship!
This Holy Week, let us pray fervently that when we are faced with persecution of any kind, the words “Long live Christ the King!” may resound with great clarity and strength in our minds and hearts – as they did in St. José’s. Let us rejoice when persecution comes for it holds a promise; the kingdom of heaven will be ours.
Empower us unceasingly with Your grace,
So that even when persecution strikes on account of our faith,
We may remain ever faithful to You!
We ask this through Christ Jesus our Lord,