Cynicism, skepticism and even pessimism are negative mindsets that are a very easy refuge for modern day Catholics whose basic beliefs are often mocked by worldly powers and whose fundamental faith receives little public support. Fewer worshippers at Mass on Sunday, fewer couples entering into Church marriages, fewer priests and religious committing themselves to Church vocations, fewer families requesting Christian burial for their loved ones, and even stridently divergent views professed by Church leaders and underscored by the media can shake the faith of many a traditional Catholic. Yet Jesus never promised his followers a rose garden or even a clear path. In this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage from St. Luke, a grim Jesus predicts that false prophets will come in his name announcing “The time has come,” hoping to lead the many astray.
Today there are several voices, even within the Church, who deride the value of unborn life, who would redefine the nature of marriage, who want to re-negotiate end-of-life issues, who call for a review of Eucharistic and sacerdotal traditions, and who question Church governmental structures. Jesus wisely insists: “Do not follow them.” Jesus admonishes his audience then and now not to be intimidated by challenging reports: “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end.” As so often occurs in Scripture, natural disasters are employed as a metaphor for the challenges that will come to future believers: “There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.” Christians in the Middle East today certainly as well as the legitimate Church community in China and many Christians in the secular Western world can identify with Jesus’ words regarding political persecution: “They will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name… You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name…”
Misunderstanding, confrontation and persecution are not new experiences for the Church community, as Jesus clearly predicted. Within one generation from Christ, Christians were expelled from their local synagogue for religious differences. In Christianity’s fourth and fifth centuries, Arianism that denied the Divinity of Christ rent the Church community in two, with possibly more members being unfaithful than faithful. The early Middle Ages witnessed the rise of the Albigensians in southern France whose disdain for God’s material creation was countered only by the eager efforts of the newly founded Dominican Friars. Protestantism led to excesses on both sides of doctrinal issues, involving both vitriol and violence. Modernism and secularism in recent centuries have greatly alienated much of the educational, political and publishing world from the Church.
These dire citations and observations notwithstanding, the cynicism, skepticism and pessimism that can so easily overtake the Christian facing difficult times cannot be the dominant theme for a person professing faith in Jesus Christ. The prophet Malachy, quoted in today’s first reading, faced the difficult times of a disorganized Jewish community just returned from exile. Since the priests were negligent, the people withheld their tithes and substituted defective goods for sacrifice. They divorced readily and married foreign partners. Sorcery, adultery, perjury and shoddy business practices abounded. Preachers did little to lead to reform and cynics boasted that reform was not worth it. Nonetheless, an undaunted Malachy boldly predicted, “But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.” St. Luke concludes his otherwise grim Gospel passage today by announcing, “By your perseverance you will secure your lives,” or, as an older translation read more pointedly, “By your perseverance you will save your souls.” Christianity is not easy embraced nor is it easily practiced. But the Christian’s continued fear of God’s name and the Christian’s continued perseverance in faith and belief will ensure the sun of justice with its healing rays will surely arise in triumph both for the individual and for society.