ROME — Pope Francis spoke on Christian persecution Sunday, praising the witness of those who face physical violence and even death “merely for the fact of being Christians.”
One of the difficulties faced by Christ’s missionaries is “the physical threat against them, that is, direct persecution against them personally, to the point of being killed,” the pope told crowds gathered in Saint Peter’s Square for his weekly Angelus prayer. “Jesus’s prophesy is fulfilled in every age: it is a painful reality, but it attests to the faithfulness of the witnesses.”
As he has done on other occasions, the pontiff suggested that there are many more Christian martyrs in today’s world than in the first centuries of the Church, when Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire.
“How many Christians are persecuted even today throughout the world!” he said. “They suffer for the Gospel with love, they are the martyrs of our day. And we can say with certainty that there are more of them than the martyrs of the early times: so many martyrs, merely for the fact of being Christians.”
The pope also went on to remind his hearers of Jesus’ teaching on the preeminence of eternal life, which has given Christians down through the centuries to confront persecution and even death with courage.
“Jesus advises these disciples of yesterday and today who suffer persecution: ‘do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,’” Francis said. “There is no need to be frightened of those who seek to extinguish the evangelizing force with arrogance and violence. Indeed, they can do nothing against the soul, that is, against their union with God: no one can take this away from the disciples, because it is a gift from God.”
“The only fear that a disciple should have is to lose this divine gift,” he continued, “this closeness to and friendship with God, to stop living according to the Gospel, thereby experiencing moral death, which is the effect of sin.”
The pope also spoke of another, more subtle threat to missionaries, that consists in trying to make the message of Christianity more palatable, by diluting its moral message and accommodating Christ’s teaching to the values of the world.
This threat comes from those who would smother the Word of God “by sugar-coating it, by watering it down or by silencing those who proclaim it,” Francis said.
In this case, Jesus encourages the Apostles to “spread the message of salvation” he has entrusted to them in all its integrity, the pope recalled. What they have heard in darkness they are to proclaim “in the light” and “from the housetops.”