Almost the only quote we lightly educated western Christians remember from Tertullian, who wrote in the second and third centuries and had an admittedly bumpy relationship with the Catholic Church, is this: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
While I am relieved that the United States is finally coming to the aid of the Yazidis and Christians of Iraq, I couldn’t help noticing how President Obama almost had to hold his nose to spit out the word “Christians.” And we Christians seem strangely detached from the persecution of Christians around the world, too.
St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Washington, D.C., an Oratorian community, held a vigil for the persecuted Christians of Iraq, and I know a lot of people who’ve said that they have prayed publicly in their churches for the Christians and other persecuted minorities in Iraq. So we are all lifted from the banality of our everyday lives as we turn our hearts towards this historic persecution, which none other than Pope Francis has compared to the tribulations of Christians in the first century.
At the parish where I popped in for Mass yesterday (I couldn’t make it to my regular parish, alas, where I feel certain things were different), the “prayers of the faithful” included a plea to God for refreshment on our summer vacations. This would be fine in an age of Augustan peace and plenty. But this is not such an age. I waited in vain for some mention of persecuted Christians in Iraq, who are spending their summer vacays not going to the Grand Canyon for “refreshment” but suffering for being Christians.
You would have thought that the combination of the Holy Father’s words and the newsworthiness of the subject would have merited a nod in this particular church — after all this is a church where preachers, always seemingly on the lookout for ways to come across to the faithful as au courant, often pepper their homilies with gleanings from current events. The closest we came to the Iraqi Christians was a vague request to the Good Lord that “leaders” reach a “truce” in the Middle East. Since ISIS, which is persecuting Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq, is not truce-prone, I don’t think we can stretch this to apply to Iraq.
Remarkably, the Christians in Iraq and other perilous places, such as Sudan, where Meriam Ibrahim risked her life and gave birth to a child while shackled in prison rather than renounce Christianity, endure these persecutions without converting to Islam. A Chaldean priest in San Diego, who was born in Iraq and whose parishioners have family members still in the Middle East, told me this is because Iraqi Christians see Islam as a “man-made religion.” They have seen, he added, how women are treated in Islamic societies. Still, I am far from certain that I would be so courageous. How about you?
We are compassed about, if we but knew it, with such a cloud of witnesses. Pope Francis puts it in its historical context, but many of us don’t want to see it. It is as if in the first century, after the stoning of, say, St. Stephen, the first martyr, Christians had gone about their business, vaguely muttering, Stephen, WHO?” We should at the very least pray and pray hard for these people who are providing a Christian witness the likes of which we rarely seen in the degenerate West.