Celebrating the feast of the apostles Peter and Paul on Monday, Pope Francis drew a parallel between the intense Christian persecution of the early centuries and the persecution faced by Christians throughout the world today.
In his homily, the Pope referenced the first reading, taken from the Acts of the Apostles, which describes the early Christian community as “besieged by persecution.” Francis said that the nascent Christian community was “harshly persecuted by Herod who ‘laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the Church … proceeded to arrest Peter also … and when he had seized him he put him in prison.’”
The Pope compared the brutalities brought to bear upon early Christians with those suffered by many followers of Jesus today, and once again, stressed the complicity of those who sit back and allow this situation to persist.
He said that “these atrocious, inhuman and incomprehensible persecutions,” are “still present in many parts of the world today, often under the silent gaze of all.”
Earlier this year, Francis said that in the suffering face of Jesus, “we still see today our persecuted brothers, beheaded and crucified for their faith … before our eyes or often with our silent complicity.”
Coincidentally, the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014, released by the U.S. State Department last week, has been fiercely criticized for radically discounting Christian persecution throughout the world.
In his homily Monday, Francis paid homage “to the courage of the Apostles and that of the first Christian community,” and he urged today’s Christians to follow their example, which was “free of fear of death and martyrdom.”
“How many forces in the course of history have tried, and still do, to destroy the Church, from without as well as within, but they themselves are destroyed and the Church remains alive and fruitful!” he said.
Though not explicitly mentioning the contemporary showdown between people of faith and an increasingly hostile secular culture, the Pope encouraged his hearers to stand firm and to believe in God’s power to sustain believers.
“Everything passes; only God remains,” he said, adding:
Indeed, kingdoms, peoples, cultures, nations, ideologies, powers have passed, but the Church, founded on Christ, notwithstanding the many storms and our many sins, remains ever faithful to the deposit of faith shown in service; for the Church does not belong to Popes, bishops, priests, nor the lay faithful; the Church in every moment belongs solely to Christ.
Francis also reminded Christians of their responsibility to bear witness to the world, in good times and in bad.
“A Church or a Christian who does not give witness is sterile; like a dead person who thinks they are alive; like a dried up tree that produces no fruit; an empty well that offers no water!” he said.
“The Church has overcome evil, thanks to the courageous, concrete and humble witness of her children,” he said. “She has conquered evil, thanks to proclaiming with conviction: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’”
The Pope also urged his hearers to find strength in prayer, knowing that without the grace of God, all efforts are bound to fail.
“No Christian community can go forward without being supported by persistent prayer! Prayer is the encounter with God, with God who never lets us down; with God who is faithful to His word; with God who does not abandon His children,” he said.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.