Remaining Faithful in the Face of Persecution
Dedication of the Basilicas of Saints Peter and Paul
Tuesday November 18, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier
Reading (2 Maccabees 6:18-31) Gospel (St. Luke 19:1-10)
We hear in the first reading about the kind of persecution the Jewish people had to endure. One thing we need to keep in mind is that the things we see in Scripture tend to repeat themselves. In other words, the things we see in the Old Testament foreshadow things that are going to come, and so there are oftentimes several points where they repeat throughout history. Being that this was actually, as I mentioned yesterday, the first real persecution of the Jewish people for their faith, it is a pattern of the way that persecutions are going to be. When we look at the persecutions of the Christians throughout history, we realize that they attempted to force them to deny the Lord and do various things; and if they would just simply make a statement of some kind, or do whatever, they would save their lives. But the true Christians would not.
It is fascinating to read in the Fathers of the Church that those who were martyred would actually say things like, “Now at last I can finally be a true Christian,” that is, they could actually give up their life for Christ. They saw this as a great privilege rather than something that was a punishment or something that was unfair or unjust. They saw that they were actually able to do for Jesus what He had done for them. So they were able, like Eleazar in the first reading, to leave an example for all of those around them. When we stop and think of the feast that we celebrate today, the Dedication of the Basilicas of Saints Peter and Paul, keep in mind that for the first several hundred years of the Church’s existence every single pope was martyred, every last one of them. And every man who was elected to that position pretty much knew he was going to be killed. Yet, one after the next for several hundred years humbly accepted that position, that service the Lord had called him to, and was willing to die for his faith rather than to deny the Lord.
For us, then, we can look at the Gospel reading and see how we are supposed to act, that is, we look at Zacchaeus. He wants to be with Jesus and he is willing to run up in front of the crowd and climb a tree. He was not just going to be part of the crowd; he was not going to fit in where he might not even be noticed; but he wanted to see the Lord and he was willing to look at his own life and say, “If I have done anything wrong, if I have extorted anything from anyone, I’ll repay him fourfold.” That kind of generosity is what the Lord is looking for from us. He is not necessarily asking us to climb a tree and be that obvious, but He is asking us to live our faith. If we have done something wrong, we need to confess our sins. If we have taken something which does not belong to us, obviously we need to return it. We need to be just. We need to live the faith that we profess. That is what He is going to expect of each one of us.
But it means also that we have to live that faith out in the world. Zacchaeus was willing to climb a tree, and everybody in the town thought that he was crazy. For us, it is to take our faith outside of the church building and outside of our homes and to live it even out in the world where everybody will be able to see it. It is not to be obnoxious about the way we live it; it is simply to live a truly Catholic life. If we do that, people are going to be irritated just like Eleazar’s friends. Because he refused to violate his conscience, because he refused to be disobedient to the laws of God and put up a pretence, the people who for years had been his friends suddenly grew extremely angry with him because they were the ones who were living the pretence and the fact that he refused to play their game is what caused their consciences to be completely numbed and they turned against their friend. So we can choose. Is it going to be our friends – who obviously are not our real friends if they are going to be like Eleazar’s – or are we going to choose Jesus Christ? As Eleazar said, “Even if I could save my life for a few moments in this world, God is going to be the judge. Whether I live or die, it does not matter; I cannot hide it from God.” We can play a game in this life but we cannot play a game with God. We need to be honest, upright, and we need to live the faith that we profess.
So for each of us, we need desperately at this time to ask ourselves some very serious questions about the depth of our faith, about how we would respond in case of some kind of persecution. Are we willing to stand up and profess our faith in the midst of threats, even in the midst of the threat of death? How much do we love Jesus? Are we willing to do whatever it is going to require? Are we going to deny our faith or are we going to profess it in the face of persecution and hardship? Those are real serious questions – not just theoretical things – because the way this world is going these are questions that we are not just going to have to answer in prayer, these are questions we, each one, may well have to answer in reality. We need to be ready because what has happened in the past foreshadows what is coming in the future. And as the Jewish people had to profess their faith, we know that what is coming is a time unparalleled in distress, not only for the world but for the Church. The only way we are going to survive is if we are going to be faithful to Christ.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.