Pope Francis continued his meditations on the end of the world, preaching Tuesday morning on “how to behave in the face of persecution” and urging his hearers to defend their Christian identity at all costs.
In his homily at morning Mass in the Saint Martha residence, Francis said that the temptation to “be like everybody else” is very seductive but ultimately leads to the loss of personal identity and faith.
The Pope put forward an example from the Old Testament, speaking of the brutal persecutions of the Jewish people under the Hellenistic King Antiochus Epiphanes. The king tried to impose pagan customs on all Israelites at the time of the Maccabees, and many gave in, so as not to be killed.
The Bible readings for the day recount the heroic witness of the scribe Eleazar, a 90-year-old man who was killed for his refusal to eat pork. Some of his elderly friends suggested he only pretend to eat the forbidden meat to save his life, but he rejected their logic.
At our age it would be unbecoming to make such a pretense; many young people would think the ninety-year-old Eleazar had gone over to an alien religion. Should I thus pretend for the sake of a brief moment of life, they would be led astray by me, while I would bring shame and dishonor on my old age.
“Even if, for the time being, I avoid the punishment of men, I shall never, whether alive or dead, escape the hands of the Almighty,” he said.
The Pope called Eleazar’s witness “a clear example of consistency of life” that frees us from spiritual worldliness. All of us are tempted, Francis said, to pretend to be one thing outwardly while living in a different way.
This worldliness, Francis said, is like “putting our Christian identity up for auction” to the highest bidder, and if we sell it, we become “just like everybody else.”
The king, Francis remarked, was looking for a one-world, secular order, with each abandoning his own customs and beliefs to fit in with the rest. This, he said, led many of the Jews “to apostasy.”
In this sort of totalitarian world, Francis said, “no differences are permitted: everyone is the same.” He said that this same secularizing trend continues even today, such as in the renaming and secularizing of religious feasts “like the birth of the Lord,” to erase their Christian identity. Where once there was Christmas, now we just have happy holidays.
The Pope challenged his hearers to examine their own lives. “It should make us think,” he said, “what is my identity? Is it Christian or worldly? Or do I call myself Christian just because I was baptized as a child or was born in a Christian country, where everyone is Christian?”
It is worldliness, he said, that “leads to a double life, the apparent one and the real one, and pulls you away from God and destroys your Christian identity,” he asserted.
The Pope concluded his homily with a suggestion:
If you now have a little time, take the Bible, open to the Second Book of Maccabees, chapter six, and read this story of Eleazar. You will do well. It will give courage to be an example to all, and also will give you strength and support to hold fast to your Christian identity, without compromise, with no double life.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.