From the earliest centuries to our own time, martyrdom is always present in the Christian Church, Pope Francis said Tuesday, in recalling the scores of Pakistani Christians slaughtered in the Easter Day massacre just two weeks ago and the many who suffer for religious liberty under unjust laws.
In his homily during Mass at the chapel of the Saint Martha residence, the Pope commented on the liturgical readings of the day that recounted the death of the first Christian martyr, Saint Stephen, who was stoned to death in the first century AD.
And “from that time to the present day there are martyrs in the Church, there always have been and there still are.” They are the “men and women persecuted for confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord,” he said.
Francis said that it is easy to think of martyrdom as a thing of the past, while in reality, it continues to the present day. When tourists come to Rome and visit the Colosseum, Francis said, they easily recognize that “the martyrs were the ones killed by the lions,” and while they are correct, “those were not the only martyrs.”
In fact, he continued, the “martyrs” are men and women of every age who give their lives for their faith and witness to the truth. Just two weeks ago, on Easter Sunday, he continued, all those Pakistani Christians were martyred “just for celebrating the risen Christ.”
On Easter, in fact, a Taliban suicide bomber blew himself up in an attack on Christians in a large park in Lahore, where hundreds of families had gathered to celebrate the feast of Easter. Among the 72 victims were more than 30 small children, who at the time of the blast were playing sports and outdoor games.
“Persecution,” the Pope said, “is one of the characteristics, one of the traits in the Church, and it pervades her history.” And persecution is “cruel,” Francis said, “like that of Stephen, like that of our brothers in Pakistan.”
And the history of the Church is accompanied by martyrs, Francis said, because “the Church is the community of believers, the community of confessors, of those who profess that Jesus is the Messiah, the community of martyrs.”
The day’s Bible passage stated that after Stephen’s martyrdom “a great persecution broke out in Jerusalem” and all the Christians fled, with only the apostles remaining. And so, Francis said, “persecution is the Church’s daily bread.”
But Francis also insisted that there are two sorts of persecution: the explicit sort, such as suffered by the Pakistani Christians slaughtered on Easter, and a more subtle persecution, which robs people of their religious freedom and the right to follow their consciences.
This second, subtle persecution appears “dressed up as culture, modernity and progress,” Francis said, and seems to be a “enlightened persecution.”
And so “every day we see that authorities make laws that mandate following a certain path,” and those who do not follow these modern, enlightened laws are “accused and persecuted in an enlightened way.”
This, said Francis, is a “persecution that takes man’s freedom away, even conscientious objection! God made us free, but this persecution takes away your freedom! And if you do not do this, you will be punished: you will lose your job … or you will be set aside.”
Several recent examples of this sort of unjust legislation to which the Pope was alluding exist.
Francis’ words coincide with the ongoing U.S. Supreme Court trial of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order of nuns who oppose the HHS mandate obliging them to provide contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs to their employees, something they claim not to be able to do in good conscience.
During his visit to the United States in September 2015, the Pope made a special stop at the home of the Little Sisters of the Poor to show his support.
Pope Francis has also recently criticized legislation of same-sex marriage and attempts to foist it on poorer countries.
In his letter on marriage and the family, Amoris Laetitia, the Pope lamented that many countries “are witnessing a legal deconstruction of the family,” which, he said, cannot bode well for the future of society.
It is unacceptable that “international bodies should make financial aid to poor countries dependent on the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex,” he said.
And so “the life of Christians has been going on with these two persecutions,” Francis said Tuesday, but also with the certainty that “the Lord has promised never to abandon us.” But “be careful!” Francis said. “Do not fall into the spirit of the world.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter Follow @tdwilliamsrome.