27 March 2012

Blessed Are the Persecuted

This final installment in the series of sermons on the Beatitudes was delivered on Passion Sunday by Canon Michael Wiener, Rector of St. Francis de Sales Oratory:


The Beatitudes describe true happiness in this life and in the life to come. They are perfections of the Christian soul, given to us through our union with Christ. During the series of sermons on the beatitudes, we have learnt that each of them corresponds to a meritorious act of perfect virtues, performed with the assistance of the gifts of the Holy Ghost.

St. Thomas enlightens our understanding of the beatitudes by explaining their ascending and dynamic order as Our Lord preaches them in the 5th Chapter of the gospel according to St. Matthew: Beginning with the detachment from sin in the first three beatitudes (“purgative way”) over the active life of the Christian who not only avoids sin but strives to do good – described in the next two beatitudes (“proficient stage”) - to the last three beatitudes of the contemplative life which allow and provide a union with God in knowledge and love.

The beatitudes are acts which are so perfect that they become “the pledge, the meritorious cause and … the first fruits of perfect beatitude” (Garrigou-Lagrange).

The last beatitude – “blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” – is a synopsis of all the other seven and their highest perfection: When virtue is firmly established in us, we will not easily renounce the author of all the gifts we have received. “Virtue consists in the … imitation of God. Every virtue, like every other thing, has its type or pattern in God”, says St. Thomas Aquinas (ST I-II, 61, 4).

God’s holiness became visible in Christ whose perfect virtue is made a shining example and source for all of us in the moment of persecution and death: “Blessed are ye when
they shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for My sake. Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven.”

And: “The servant is not greater than his master” (John 15, 20).

The European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg ruled last Thursday that if same-sex unions are lawful in one the member-states which signed the European Convention on Human Rights, any church that refuses to marry gay couples could be charged with discrimination.

Also in this country the government attempts to infringe every Catholic’s right of “conscientious objection … with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices” (Pope Benedict XVI. to US Bishops on January 19, 2012 in Rome), a legislation which seriously threatens the rights of the Church.
“And who is it but Christ Himself Who alone is all-powerful, who brings it about that every persecution which is launched against the faithful should react to the lasting benefit of the Church?”, writes Pope Pius XI. in the face of the persecution of the Church in Mexico in 1926 (Encyclical “Iniquis Afflictisque”), quoting St. Hilary of Poitiers:

“It is a prerogative of the Church that she is the vanquisher when she is persecuted, that she captures our intellects when her doctrines are questioned, that she conquers all at the very moment when she is abandoned by all." (St. Hilary of Poitiers De Trinitate, Bk. VII, No. 4).

"He who seeks only the glory of God is not afraid of being defeated in the sight of men" (St. John Chrysostom).

St. Francis de Sales calls those foolish who “waste time in desiring to be martyred in far countries, but do not apply themselves in their state of life.” Heroic martyrdom of the
daily life is – here and now – to be generous in all spheres of life, in our families, at the work place or on the baseball field. Here and now we are called to live up to our state in life as Catholics who were configured to Christ in baptism.

Those who want to act well by giving witness to Christ, by giving a good example in obedience, humility and simplicity to the precepts of Christ will suffer and encounter opposition. Martyrdom in the strict sense by giving one’s life might never be asked of us; the martyrdom of every day life’s persecutions is expected of us.

In this we have to grow by acquiring all virtues in fullness and embracing the gifts the Holy Ghost offers to us.

“All the saints have not been martyrs, but they have, in varying degrees, suffered persecution for justice' sake, and they have known something of that martyrdom of the heart which made Mary the Mother of Sorrows”, says Father Garrigou-Lagrange. “Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice' sake”, because they have been made similar to Christ, carrying “the image of Jesus crucified”.

Those who remain in unity with Christ while being persecuted have remained humble, patient, merciful and virtuous in all domains of life already before persecution began. It is therefore necessary to strive for perfection and to ask the Lord to give us strength and courage even in the moment of violent trials.

Pope Benedict XVI. told the US bishops on the occasion of their ad limina visit in Rome this past January: “There can be no doubt that a more consistent witness on the part of America’s Catholics to their deepest convictions would make a major contribution to the renewal of society as a whole” (Pope Benedict XVI. to US Bishops on January 19, 2012 in Rome).

Our most important contribution is, and always was, to strive for the perfections of the beatitudes.


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