We gather together to fight persecution

Father John A. Kiley

A recent Inter-Faith convocation concluded with the familiar seasonal hymn, “We Gather Together.” The chorus began, “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing, To live in community seeking God’s Will.”

Frankly, I was a bit miffed that the words familiar to me, “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing, To worship the Father through Jesus His Son…” were altered to the more fashionable “…to live in community seeking God’s Will.” My mild pique was somewhat assuaged when I recalled that the assembled believers represented not only Catholic and Protestant traditions, but also Jews, Moslems, Baha’i adherents and possibly Unitarians and humanists. This least common denominator perspective had sadly to be adopted in order not to offend – or to put it more kindly – in order to include all participants. Still, the elimination of God the Father and Christ his Son from public expression was disturbing.

An easy search on Google revealed the original words of this hymn, first translated into English in 1877 from a Dutch hymn of the late sixteenth century, and until recently found unaltered in most Protestant hymnals. The hymn was a prayer set to folk music in gratitude for the defeat of Catholic Spanish rule in the Protestant Netherlands. Now, the Dutch could “gather together” in public, unhindered by Catholic overlords. The “wicked” Catholics who oppressed the Dutch would now “cease from distressing,” since God “forgets not his own.” The Lowcountryfolk happily reflected: “So from the beginning the fight we were winning; Thou, Lord, wast at our side, all glory be Thine!” The hymn concludes extoling God as a “leader triumphant” and “defender,” praying that the Dutch Protestants would continue to “escape tribulation,” finally pleading, “O Lord, make us free!”

“We Gather Together” was clearly a tribute to fortitude in the face of religious persecution. Modern day Americans can easily understand why later generations began to include its tune and words in Thanksgiving Day celebrations throughout the United States. Our Puritan ancestors were understood to have arrived in the New World fleeing not Catholic persecution as the Dutch had experienced but rather persecution by the Church of England who considered such Low Church Protestants to be dissenters and non-conformists. The Puritans, who through most of American history were known as Congregationalists, had no time for bishops and priests and the Romish trappings of High Church Anglicanism. Their Bible might have read King James, but their theology definitely said John Calvin.

Persecution nowadays is less obvious. American believers today might not be placed on the rack nor driven from these shores. But, Pope Francis has wisely pointed out another form of oppression. The Pontiff advised the Vatican Diplomatic Corps about this modern menace: “It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously. It is what my much-loved predecessor, Benedict XVI, called the “tyranny of relativism”, which makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples. There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth.” As Pope Francis notes, relativism, indifferentism, subjectivism, and situationalism all ignore the common, fundamental nature which unites every human being. Relativism isolates persons, each secluded in his or her own opinion. Only fundamental truth can unite: truth that recognizes the common, universal, God-given nature of man and the world. Educators, legislators, entertainers, newscasters, and even preachers who fail to admit a common nature for mankind and instead encourage everyone to pursue his or her own way do just as much harm as the sword and the exile of previous centuries.

Whether it be the early martyrs facing the Roman Empire, or medieval Christians fearing the Turk, or Eastern Europeans withstanding Communism, the vigor of previous generations of believers is clearly something for which modern believers must be truly grateful. Tribulation solidified their beliefs and strengthened their wills. The new papal-described despotism is no less dangerous and should be met with equal intensity.