Persecution from Within the Church – A Lesson from the Saints
Sometimes, the worst enemy of the Catholic Church is Catholics themselves, whether it be the person in the pew next to you, your priest or bishop, the Pope, or even yourself. When we sin, we hurt ourselves and those around us, and we impede the mission of the Church in the world – the salvation of souls.
Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the issue of how to respond to more direct persecution. I’ve been forced to watch a ministry that I was part of for years, and which was a big part of my journey of faith, be systematically impeded and even dismantled by a priest who was recently given authority over it. And sadly, I know this is not an abnormal situation. I can’t count how many stories I’ve heard, or friends I have who have experienced the same. It’s not even the first time I’ve personally experienced it.
The last time I experienced something similar, my reaction was less than exemplary – I ran. I moved to another parish, and I became hopeless and lazy. For a long time I lost the zeal to invest in my faith again, just sort of treading water spiritually.
How should I have responded? Well, in the most general sense, with virtue. With faith, hope and love, rather than hopelessness and cowardice.
To be more specific, I look to the saints. There are many saints who became extremely holy, despite (or perhaps partially because of) the persecution of the Church hierarchy and fellow Christians. St. Padre Pio was banned from saying mass publicly for years, and much of the Church thought he was a fraud. St. Joan of Arc was excommunicated and then executed for heresy! Even Christ himself was betrayed by a bishop, and condemned to death by his own people.
The most important element of those stories is how the saints responded. St. Joan of Arc died professing the truth, fearlessly defying her killers. And Padre Pio did more than endure his punishment, he benefited from it! His faith became even greater, and even after years of being stuck in his monastery, he still lived with great joy. He didn’t worry about the future because he trusted God completely.
Obviously, God works through these kinds of persecutions to bring about his divine will. It can be difficult to see why, but the best explanation I have found is in the writings of St. Augustine, in a letter called “Of True Religion”:
“Often, too, Divine Providence permits even good men to be driven from the congregation of Christ by the turbulent seditions of carnal men. When, for the sake of the peace of the Church, they patiently endure that insult or injury, and attempt no novelties in the way of heresy and schism, they will teach men how God is to be served with a true disposition and with great and sincere charity. The intention of such men is to return when the tumult has subsided. But, if that is not permitted because the storm continues or because a fiercer one might be stirred up by their return, they hold fast to their purpose to look to the good even of those responsible for the tumults and commotions that drove them out: and, without forming secret congregations, they defend to the death and confirm by their testimony the faith which they know is preached in the Catholic Church. The One who sees their secret combats crowns their victory in secret. This situation seems rare in the Church, but it is not without precedent, it presents itself more often than it can be believed.”
This quote is so full of wisdom, it’s worth taking a closer look at. Although it refers to those driven from the congregation of Christ (that is, wrongfully excommunicated, like St. Joan), it really is applicable to lesser persecutions as well.
The first thing that jumped out to me is that Augustine says this happens “often”, and even “more often than can be believed.” That this happened so much even in the fourth century is, in a way, a comfort. The Church has endured and grown throughout its entire history with such things taking place. We can have faith that it will continue to endure, even when we seem overwhelmed with scandals and injustice.
Augustine also refers to enduring these things “for the peace of the Church.” It’s a good reminder that when we are wronged, even if that wrong does damage to others’ faith, we are likely to create greater scandal by losing our peace, and engaging in a battle against others within the Church. It is often more fruitful to be patient, while holding to the truth, than to become angry and demand justice. Of course, this is also far more difficult.
Finally, Augustine notes that we should work for the good even of those who persecute us. We must love our enemies, even if they are fellow Christians. Whatever we do, we cannot assert our own way by tearing down and destroying the persecutors. We have to love them instead (this doesn’t mean we can’t stand up to them, only that it must be in love).
Jesus warned us, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.” But it was not primarily the Romans who persecuted Jesus, but his own people! If we expect to be persecuted as Christ was, we must expect that we will be persecuted by those who above all others, should treat us well. We should expect to be treated harshly by those who should be our friends, to be undermined by those who should be working with us.
In short, we should expect the persecution of fellow Christians, and we should embrace it with complete faith that God will use it to make us saints.