Friday, February 6, 2015

Evangelization, Martyrs, Joy, and Constancy

On February 5, 1597 Paul Miki, a young Jesuit scholastic and twenty-five companions were crucified in Nagasaki, Japan.  Every year on their feast day--February 6th--I am struck by the account of their martyrdom.  Witnesses testify that the twenty-six martyrs prayed continuously during their sufferings,  forgiving their torturers, praying for their conversion, praising God, and encouraging their fellow Catholics.  The line that most strikes me from their martyrology is this: "Joy glowed in all their faces."  In the midst of what appeared to be total failure, "joy glowed in all their faces."

In the Gospel today, we heard St. Mark's account of the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist.  Imagine the world in which St. John was living.  The person entrusted with civil authority was a buffoon.  John the Baptist preached to Herod about the immorality of his marriage to his brother's wife.  Because of this, Herod imprisoned him.  John must have looked around and wondered how things could get so bad.  In the palace of Herod, debauchery was rampant.  Herod and all of his sycophants are in a drunken stupor.  Things have become so weird and twisted that Herod's daughter comes into the banquet and dances as entertainment for the guests.  This scene always makes me squirm.  Things are so perverted in Herod's life that he has his daughter dancing for a bunch of drunkards.  But, if things are not twisted enough, the young girl is promised by Herod anything she wants.  She goes and asks Herodias--Herod's illicit wife--what she should ask for.  She answers immediately, "The head of John the Baptist on a platter."  What a family.

This was what John the Baptist was up against.  These were the people running the country.  In the midst of this, perhaps John the Baptist at times was tempted to think, "What's the point of trying to change things?"  There are times when things seem so far gone, it can seem clinging to the truth is going to accomplish nothing.  Clinging to the truth can seem kind of pointless.  In fact, when you consider how absurd life can be at times it is easy to allow yourself to get discouraged.  John the Baptist was beheaded because a drunken king made a promise to his daughter whom he just had dance for a bunch of drunken men and the daughter's mother thought a good payment would be a platter with John the Baptist's head on it.  Totally absurd.

John the Baptist knew that things were out of control.  He looked around and saw that the situation was growing darker.  He could have shrugged his shoulders and said, "There's no way that these idiots are ever going to change."  Instead, John the Baptist remained constant in his proclamation of the truth.  Even if it would appear to many that he failed in his mission, John the Baptist testified to the truth with his last breath.

At a moment in history when the Catholic Church's influence on western culture is waning, it can be tempting to cave in to the dominant culture.  It can also be tempting to become angry, discouraged, or silent.  I think of the students on my campus at Boston University.  Many of the Catholic students convey to me that in their classes they are often made to feel stupid or part of some archaic belief system.  It's not even a matter of being a minority in a debate about moral issues.  More often than not, many of their professors simply presume--for instance--that every right thinking person knows abortion is great and that no intelligent person would think otherwise.  Catholic students can feel very alone.

In the face of overwhelming opposition, it can be all too easy to give up.  But, Paul Miki and his companions didn't give up.  More than that, in the face of the opposition of an empire, their faces glowed with joy.  How does this happen?  It happened because Paul Miki and his companions possessed the virtue of constancy.  John the Baptist possessed the virtue of constancy.

Despite all of the obstacles that threatened to wear them down, Paul Miki and his companions remained constant in their adherence to the truth and they pushed forward.  In fact, the more their torments increased, the more their faces glowed with joy.  The more they endured the Cross (and in their instance, they literally endured the cross), the more they preached the Gospel of Joy.  Their sufferings did not embitter them or discourage them.  Their apparent worldly failures did not break them.  Had they only softened their preaching, been less public about their faith, or been more willing to accommodate the culture and the powers of government, then perhaps they would have been more accepted by the prevailing forces.  Instead, they remained constant in their faith and this constancy saw them through to victory.  No, not a worldly victory, but the only victory that ultimately matters: the victory of remaining in Christ.  

From a worldly perspective, the martyrs are failures.  They preached, were rejected, and died.  But, for the Church, the martyr is victorious because victory is not defined as how many people agree with you or applaud you.  Victory is gained by adhering to Christ, carrying the Cross, and bearing witness to him until the end.

The psalm today was very beautiful and very fitting for today's feast.  These words from Psalm 27 could have been found on the lips of Paul Miki and his companions.  "Though an army encamp against me, my heart will not fear; though war be waged upon me, even then will I trust"  Without the virtue of constancy, we give up the fight in the face of so many obstacles.  The noise from Herod's palace can seem to drown out the truth of the Gospel.  It can appear that the people at Herod's party are all having a good time.  After all, they're the one's having fun while John the Baptist is sitting in a dark cell by himself.

Such obstacles could weigh one down.  For the martyrs, however, these obstacles became stepping stones to glory.  Herod's parties, I am sure, became more and more depraved.  They could not provide true happiness and thus needed continuously to devolve.  In just one party, drunkenness and lust were not enough to keep things going.  They needed to add murder.  But, for Paul Miki and his companions, their faces glowed with joy.  In the midst of their sufferings, they possessed a joy that could not be taken from them.  They were constant in their faith and persevered until the very end.

Martyrs and saints are the model for the New Evangelization.  The New Evangelization needs constancy in its missionaries (i.e., all of us).  It needs Catholics who will not capitulate or grow discouraged in the face of obstacles.  There is indeed an army encamped against the Church and her teachings and there is a war being waged.  In the face of this, we can seem very small and weak.  From a worldly perspective, we may not have the numerical success that we would like to have.  Mother Theresa and her sisters, I am sure, never had the numerical success that the world would envision as successful.  In the face of tremendous societal obstacles, they simply and joyfully remained constant.  Are we prepared to appear like failures?  To the world, John the Baptist and Paul Miki and his companions all appear to be failures.  To the world, Dietrich Bonhoeffer--a Lutheran Minister who opposed Hitler and was killed in a concentration camp--appears to be a failure.  The true test of one's Christianity is the willingness to follow Him to the Cross and to the appearance of failure.  

Paul Miki and his companions followed Christ to the Cross, and 418 years later we still recall that "joy glowed in all of their faces."  Evangelization is hard work and there are many obstacles that stand in the way.  May the Lord fill us with the virtue of constancy and may the joy of the Gospel glow in all of our faces.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this encouragement, a great reminder to stay the course when we are encountering those discouraging moments that come with the territory.