It is a widely held belief, at least in these United States, that the greatest preacher of the 20th century in the English language was Fulton J. Sheen. Certainly, Archbishop Sheen was one of the greats—not to mention a pioneer of televangelism. Notwithstanding, the ﬁnest preacher of the century was, in fact, an Englishman, Monsignor Ronald Knox.
Knox had the rare gift as a preacher, in that his written sermons are works of sublime prose, still able to inspire the reader decades after they were ﬁrst written and delivered. Even though a sermon is meant to be spoken, Knox managed to ﬁnd a way of creating a line or phrase in each oration worthy of the great essayists of the past—a Swift or, indeed, a Belloc.
Preaching the Panegyric at Belloc’s funeral (they did not have the ubiquitous eulogy in those days), Knox described Belloc as a prophet, and he gave one the best deﬁnitions of the prophet’s difﬁcult and lonely vocation. A prophet, Knox said, is one who can “see the evils of our time in a clear light.”
The persecution of Christians throughout the world is one of the great evils of our time. The twentieth century saw the death of more Christians under the atheistic Nazi and Communist regimes than all the previous centuries combined. The ﬁrst decades of the 21st century have seen ancient persecutors of the Faith reemerge—something Belloc predicted after the defeat of the Ottoman empire at the end of World War I.
The threat is posed, not only radical Islam (certainly the most deadly and widespread cause of Christian persecution today), but also radical Hinduism and Buddhism. Although not yet experiencing persecution to the point of death, the new and ugly phenomenon of aggressive secularism in the West brings persecution of a different sort.
Preaching an empty message of tolerance, the smiling agents of freedom ﬁnd it intolerable to allow Christians to live their faith and, increasingly, to be employed in certain occupations. This will only get worse. From Iraq to Indonesia, from Syria to Nigeria, in Pakistan, Egypt and Mali, Christians are being martyred for their faith on a daily basis. Europe is not immune; one only has to think of the elderly Fr. Jacques Hamel, martyred in Normandy while celebrating Mass. There is little reason to doubt such assaults are likely to increase.
Yet, despite the tsunami of persecution ﬂooding across so much of the world, there are very few prophetic voices addressing this evil. The mainstream media is remarkably silent about attacks on Christians. In the same week as the awful attack on the mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand—a heinous and unconscionable crime—more than two hundred Christians were killed in Nigeria. There was hardly any mention of the latter in the news. There were no marches for martyred Christians, no tolling of church bells ordered by governments, no “Je suis Charlie” t-shirts… no public outrage at all.
It could be argued that one of the functions of an effective media would be to exercise some of the prophetic qualities identiﬁed by Knox: to see and name the evils of the day. Perhaps for some, the assault on Christians is not an evil. Even those actually charged by their vocation to exercise the prophetic ofﬁce—namely, bishops and priests—seem peculiarly silent about the ongoing slaughter of our fellow believers.
It might be ignorance, or the more deadly sin of indifference, that keeps the sentinels silent. But, as European Union envoy on religious freedom Jan Figel has said, “ignorance and indifference are allies of evil.”
Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil identiﬁed another reason for the silence of so many clerics about the persecution: fear of being labeled “politically incorrect”—especially with regard to any criticism of Islam. Yet the followers of Christ have been persecuted from the beginning. Christ, in fact, promised that faithful Christians would receive the same treatment He received.
The Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Damascus, Ignatius Ephrem, often refers to persecution as a “mark” of the Church; she is One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic, and Persecuted. She regards martyrdom, the shedding of one’s blood for Christ, as the greatest act of witness. The very “cloud of witnesses” described in St. Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews has always been for the Church a source of inspiration and encouragement.
From the earliest martyrs of Rome to the English martyrs of the Reformation and through to the martyrs of the present age, the stories of these men and women’s heroic ﬁdelity are meant to revive and strengthen the faith of lethargic and slothful Christians. And it’s not only the martyrs who inspire. So, too, do the confessors—those willing to lose property and position because of the Faith. Consider the Christians of Iraq who persevere in their homeland, or the bakers and ﬂorists here in the West who won’t cater to same-sex marriages, or the doctors and nurses who refuse to facilitate abortion.
These modern-day martyrs and confessors also pose a curious question regarding how Christians ought to face persecution: ﬁght or ﬂight?
It’s an ageless question, and one that speaks to what we might call the paradox of persecution. Except in those instances where persecutors succeed in nearly annihilating the Church, as in Enver Hoxha’s Albania or present-day North Korea, the persecuted Church tends to exhibit the supernatural energy and ﬁdelity depicted in the Acts of the Apostles. (Think of the Church in Poland during the communist years, or the underground Ukrainian Catholic Church.) Yet the freedom to practice the Faith without mass persecution leads to assimilation with societal norms. A steady drip of apostates, particularly young people and intellectuals, slowly drains the Church.
“It is not what a man suffers, but the cause for which he suffers, that makes a man a martyr,” wrote Ronald Knox. It’s a scandal that those who proclaim the religion of human rights do not raise their voices in defense of persecuted Christians. The scandal is even graver for those who are meant to speak for their fellow believers. Defending the persecuted, whatever the cost to ourselves, isn’t an option for those who call themselves Christians: it’s the only path available to us. Yet the paradox of persecution means that, without those martyrs and confessors, we may forget what true witness looks like.