Yesterday, I touched on many of the themes below, but it was an extremely personal homily between me and my parishioners in light of the times we are living. These readings are extraordinary, and I think it's a good time to revisit a homily I preached 6 years ago on the life of a remarkable priest that is on the path to canonization.
"You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives." (Luke 21:17-19)
At first glimpse, today's gospel can be and has been misinterpreted by some as a blueprint for how the end of the world will go down. We live in a culture that needs to have everything timed and scheduled, so it would be nice to know when Jesus plans to make his triumphant return. Many preachers will mistakenly point to the wars, insurrections, famines, and earthquakes that have taken place around the world recently and say that this is exactly what Jesus was talking about in today's gospel when predicting the end of the world. Well...not exactly. Jesus also says: "but it will not immediately be the end. (Lk 21:9)" All these events have been occurring around world for the last 2000 years and still we await the return of Jesus. In other words, don't read too much into natural or man-made catastrophes, as tragic as they are, they are not precursors to the apocalypse. Just be prepared to stand up for Christ and be prepared to be persecuted for his sake. That is something that Jesus does promise in today's gospel for those who are faithful to him. We will be mocked, persecuted, and hated all because of Him. The question is: Do we live our faith in such a way that we risk being persecuted for our beliefs? Are we up for this challenge?
Yesterday morning I started reading the biography of a fascinating Jesuit priest: Father Walter Ciszek. Fr. Ciszek was a Polish-American born in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania in 1904 and as a teenager had a reputation as a bully and a street tough. Throughout his life, you could see patterns of him doing things that people told him he could not do. So when he was 14 and told his father that he wanted to be a priest, his father laughed it off. But young Walter entered the seminary anyway. He wanted to maintain his toughness, so he would wake up at 4:30 a.m. just to go on a five mile run and swim in the lake in November when it was barely above freezing. As he would later write: "I still couldn't stand to think that anyone could do something that I couldn't do." Down the line, I guess diocesan priesthood was too easy so three years shy of ordination he made up his mind to become a Jesuit and he did. At the time, Pope Pius XI was all too aware that we were losing Russia to atheism so he turned to the Jesuits for missionaries to go into Russia to tend to the people. Ciszek was sent to Rome to study Russian and learn to say Mass in the Russian rite and he was finally ordained in 1937. But he couldn't enter Russia so he went as close as he could which lead him to Poland. When the Germans invaded Poland, Russia came to him when the Red Army came from the east and he saw it as an opportunity amidst the tragedy of the Nazi invasion to travel into Russia with all the refugees headed east. He finally entered Russia under a fake name and a fake backstory and ended up in the Ural Mountain town of Chusovoy where he worked in a lumber yard and and celebrated Mass secretly in the woods. But the KGB and secret police eventually figured out who he was, arrested him, and accused him of being a Vatican Spy. He was subjected to cruel and unspeakable torture as he tried to stick to his cover story, but he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in Siberia where he would learn to minister to his fellow prisoners in the harshest of conditions. He ended up in a town 10 degrees north of the Arctic Circle shoveling coal into freighters. The guards would not distribute winter clothes until the temperature dropped to 30 degrees below zero. But through all this torture, Ciszek maintained his toughness. He went five years without celebrating the Eucharist until he met another priest. The prisoners would crush raisins to make wine, they would use the back of a watch as a paten for the bread, and a shot glass as a chalice. He found incredible joy in finally being able to celebrate the Eucharist and he would smuggle communion to the prisoners, hear their confessions, and even would give retreats in order to keep the men's spirits up. The sheer audacity of Fr. Ciszek's fearless approach to ministry could be seen when he celebrated Mass on one occasion right in the commandant's quarters when it had been cleared for the day. This priest feared nothing. Once his sentence in the GULAG was complete, he was sent out to a small town in Siberia where he set up shop to continue doing the very thing he was arrested for: ministering as a priest. He worked in a factory where the people would cover for him so he could go about his ministry and set up a very successful mission. When the secret police discovered what he was doing after they infiltrated a Midnight Mass, they kicked him out of town and he proceeded to set up another mission in another town within two months. When he was kicked out of there, he did it in a third town. This was a priest that would not let anything or anyone or any sort of persecution or torture stand in the way of his priestly ministry. Finally in 1963, he was taken by the secret police to Moscow where he was part of a prisoner exchange for two Soviet spies the U.S. had been holding and he came back to America where his sisters and the Jesuits had spent 25 years thinking that he was dead. He lived out the remainder of his years in the U.S and died in 1984. His home diocese is now promoting his cause for canonization for his heroic virtues. (To read a good, quick 10 minute synopsis of his life, click here: http://www.ciszek.org/About_Ciszek.html)
Here was a true Christian who did not cower in the face of persecution. In fact it only made him stronger. Have we ever been persecuted for our faith? Or better yet: Do we live our faith in such an overt way that we run the risk of being persecuted for our morals, beliefs, and fidelity to Christ? Fr. Ciszek did not care what happened to him and he lived in Soviet Russia during the height of the Cold War. We live in a country that allows us to practice our faith freely, but do we express it freely? When confronted with the toughness and audacity of Father Ciszek's life, I look at our Catholic community, including myself and come to the same conclusion that King Julian came to when he saw the domesticated lion, zebra, hippo, and giraffe in the cartoon Madagascar: "They're just a bunch of pansies." It's a harsh assessment about Catholics in general, I know, but do we live out our faith in a bold way that merits any other assessment? The example of this tough as nails priest should embolden us to take our faith to the next level. If Evangelicals are getting in people's faces with the message of Jesus Christ, why can't we? It's like we live our lives embarrassed or ashamed to be Catholic when we should walk around with our heads held high because we have been given this glorious gift of our faith that allows us to come encounter Christ in the Eucharist every Sunday. We must all work towards the goal of shedding this wimpy practice of our faith and start working towards a more proactive practice of Catholicism. As St. Paul told the Thessalonians in today's second reading: "if anyone [is] unwilling to work, neither should that one eat. (2 Thes 3:10)" You want to sit at Christ's table? It's time to roll up your sleeves and start living out the faith we profess in the Creed we recite every Sunday. We need more Fr. Ciszek's who are "tough as nails" Catholics that boldly live out their faith despite what the world throws at them. This is what the Church, what the world is crying for as it quickly declines into secularism where God has no place and our faith becomes irrelevant. Who will stand up? Who will dare live their faith in such a way that they risk being persecuted for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ?