Persecution and the Thunder of Social Media

Today is the Feast of St. James the Greater, who among other things is one of the patron saints of Spain.  His role in the creation of that country occurred well before the age of social media.  Yet a debate which took place in Britain’s House of Lords yesterday, regarding the nexus between social media and increasing violence in the name of religion, should give us some food for thought as we reflect on the message of Christ which St. James himself witnessed.

It is believed by some that after the Resurrection, St. James (or Santiago, as he is known in NW Spain) preached in Spain in the first century before returning to Judea, where he was arrested and later executed by King Herod.  It is also believed that much later, in the 9th century, he appeared in a vision to Christians fighting against the armies of the resident Moors, helping the outnumbered Christians to win the day.  As a result, Santiago subsequently gained the sobriquet, “Matamoros”, or “The Moor-Slayer.” This is not, obviously, a term which finds much support today, but during this period known as the Reconquista (“Reconquering”), it had a tremendous impact.

Today its territorial empire is mostly gone, but the linguistic and cultural empire which Spain established still remains.  Ironically, while the Christian faith which Spain spread across the planet continues to grow elsewhere, in Spain herself the state of the Church is at present uncertain.  What is needed in Spain, and indeed throughout Western Europe, is an entirely new form of Reconquista: not one of violence, but rather of witness, winning souls in the way Christians live their lives and how they treat others. To that end, social media can and should be a significant component.

Yet all of us, not just Christians in Spain, need to take to heart what Lord Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, said in Parliament yesterday. Noting current examples of religious violence such as the attacks by ISIS on Christians in Iraq, mob rage against Jews in France, and sectarian Muslim-on-Muslim violence in Africa, he cautioned that fiery hatreds are increasingly being stoked via digital means.   “[W]e recognise the power of the internet and social media to turn any local conflict into a global one,” he noted, later going on to state that it is “the worst, not the best, who know how to capture the attention of a troubled and confused world.”

Lord Sacks is absolutely right, of course, in that the online world can be a vicious place.  He who screams the most obscenities or makes the most outlandish statements about annihilating entire groups of people ends up getting the most attention.  What’s more, the media prefers to cover the rantings of fanatics, both religious and anti-religious, rather than the ordinary people suffering because of their faith.  I find it embarrassing, for example, to note how often secular news reporters trim their fingernails disinterestedly, or play political favorites, rather than report on persecutions of Catholics.  And while we may all point to Pope Francis as someone who not only has the will, but the popular reach to bring words of reason and charity to millions of people through online media, more of us need to be doing our part to peaceably aid in this effort, rather than stirring the pot.

On his Feast Day then, we have a good opportunity to reflect upon what happened when St. James became a bit too hot-headed in his own faith.  In St. Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus realizes it is time to end His public ministry, He and His disciples begin to make their way down from Galilee to Jerusalem, passing through the region of Samaria along the way.  Jesus sends messengers ahead of Him, so that any village He may pause in will be ready for His arrival.

Word comes back that one of the villages has refused to welcome Jesus, because His destination was Jerusalem; given the enmity between the Samaritans and the Jews at that time, this was perhaps not surprising. St. James, however, is absolutely livid at this news.  Along with his brother St. John, St. James asks Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from Heaven to consume them?”  In doing so, the Sons of Zebedee are echoing the call of the Prophet Elijah in the First Book of Kings, in his battle against the priests of Ba’al, and indeed the earlier destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Book of Genesis.

However instead of giving His approval, as St. James might have expected, Jesus rebukes the brothers for their suggestion.  We are not told how He did so, or what He said, or how the “Sons of Thunder”, as they were later nicknamed as a result, reacted themselves.  Perhaps the two of them were still fired up with zeal from what they had seen at the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor a few days earlier when, along with St. Peter, they witnessed a glorified Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah, two prophets who were quite capable of calling down fire and brimstone when warranted, even upon their own people.  In this case, that kind of holy retribution was not to be.

Whatever St. James himself learned from this exchange with Christ, and he must have learned something to die a martyr’s death a few years later, the first of the Apostles to do so, we can learn from his experience ourselves.  Taking Lord Sacks’ cautions about social media to heart, if I am honest about it, I, too, have been guilty of calling down fire online, a temptation which I suspect many of my readers who use social media have also succumbed to from time to time.  So without dampening our enthusiasm for spreading the Gospel then, or defending our faith, perhaps my fellow Christians may want to take a lesson here, from the life of St. James, the man whose memory we honor today in the Church.

Detail of "St. James the Greater" by Alonso Cano (c. 1635) The Louvre, Paris

Detail of “St. James the Greater” by Alonso Cano (c. 1635)
The Louvre, Paris

Real Heroism: No Dragons Required

As I watch my social media feeds, I confess I’m a tad jealous of two friends of mine who just so happen to be visiting Barcelona.  Today is the Feast of St. George – “Sant Jordi” in Catalan – and he is the patron saint of both the city of Barcelona and the region of Catalonia, of which Barcelona is the capital. My friends really lucked out on their trip corresponding with the celebration of local traditions about the city’s favorite hero.

Of course, old stories about St. George fighting a dragon are not to be taken literally.  Most scholars believe that George was born in what is today Palestine to Greek Christian parents sometime around 275 A.D.; his father was a well-respected and wealthy army officer, but both George’s parents died when he was in his teens.  Like his father before him, George decided to join the army, and eventually rose through the ranks to become an officer.  He was later imprisoned, tried, and finally executed on April 23, 303 A.D., under the mass persecutions and purges of Christians carried out by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in the early 4th century.

Even though he was never in Catalonia – whatever the charming old medieval legends may say – St. George does have a more important, spiritual connection to the Christian community in Barcelona.  St. George was part of a huge wave of martyrs, created just before Christianity was finally legalized under Diocletian’s successor Constantine.  In Barcelona, within 12 months of St. George’s execution in what is now Turkey, the city had a number of its own Christian martyrs, as a result of Diocletian’s murderous paranoia.

St. Eulalia, a young girl martyred as part of this persecution near Barcelona’s old Roman Forum, is now entombed in a magnificent shrine beneath the equally magnificent Barcelona Cathedral, just a few hundred feet from where she met her untimely end. St. Severus, Bishop of Barcelona during Diocletian’s reign, was also executed during the same time; today his remains lie in the only perfectly preserved Baroque church in the city, a beautiful, peaceful spot for contemplation.  And the ancient Basilica of Sants Just i Pastor, which served as the Pro-Cathedral in the Middle Ages while Barcelona’s present Cathedral was being built, was constructed over the catacombs containing the remains of two Christian schoolboys, Justus and Pastor.  They were beheaded near the spot where the beautiful church named for them now stands, during the same period, for refusing to recant their faith.

This gives us a sense not only of how the Church attracts people of all ages and backgrounds, but also how quickly and widely it spread from its humble beginnings in Jerusalem.  George serving in the army out in Turkey would never have known or heard about Eulalia, Severus, Justus, and Pastor living in a small colonial town on the Iberian Peninsula.  However all of them, as well as the many others who met their end for their Christian faith, knew that they were part of something much larger than themselves, and chose to act heroically, when faced with either confessing the truth or saving their own skin.

In the present age, examples like that of St. George are good ones for us to keep in mind.  Here was a real hero, dragon or no dragon.  He chose the fork in the road that lead to his death, but which also led him to life, and to the respect of thousands of Christians down the centuries who have named their children in his honor.  Would that if and when our time comes, we would be heroic enough to make the same choice that he did.

Detail of St. George from "The St. George Triptych" by Jaume Huguet (1460) Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona

Detail of St. George from “The St. George Triptych” by Jaume Huguet (1460)
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona


Into the Lions’ Den

If you have been following the news lately then you are aware of a manufactured news story which made national headlines, about the effort by a group of gay marriage activists to remove a Catholic priest from the Newman Center ministry at George Washington University here in the Nation’s Capital for doing his job, i.e. teaching the Catholic faith, hard as it is for many to accept. What you will not be aware of is that the priest in question, Father Greg Shaffer, is a friend of mine, and someone whom I respect greatly. He has not asked me to write what I am about to share with you, and I will refrain from speaking about him personally other than in general terms. However there comes a time when attacking the Church moves from debates and hypotheticals into attacks on people whom we care about, and in fact on what forms the very essence of who we are as Christians. Therefore I hope Father Greg will forgive me for adding my two rather measly cents to circumstances in which he certainly needs no help from me, but in which I am proud to offer whatever support I can.

Sunday evening I had the privilege of attending a mass concelebrated by Father Greg with Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, and a number of other priests. Those of you who are regular readers of these pages know that Newman Center masses are not really my style, as guitars and what is referred to as “praise and worship music” make me wince. Nevertheless, this is a question of taste, for it has been a long time since I was an undergraduate, and more importantly there is no question whatsoever regarding Father Greg’s orthodoxy – he is probably the priest most passionately devoted to the Blessed Sacrament that I have ever met. Plus, when your Cardinal-Archbishop comes to visit, you can hardly want to stay away. Never let it be said that I have turned down an opportunity to kiss the episcopal ring.

The mass itself was beautiful, and the congregation full. We were very fortunate to have Cardinal Wuerl come straight from the airport off a flight from Rome in order to be able to celebrate with us and publicly demonstrate his support, and despite some obvious fatigue and jetlag His Eminence soldiered on. It was wonderful to see the outpouring of enthusiasm both for him, and for Father Greg among those assembled for mass.

Yet the most striking thing about the mass itself was unquestionably the Cardinal’s homily. Fortunately for those of you who were not able to attend this mass, the Cardinal has posted the text of this sermon on his blog, which you can read here. It is not only a powerful statement of support for Father Greg personally, the challenges of Christ’s teachings, and the dangers of limiting religious liberty, but more importantly I believe it is something that Catholics anywhere in this country, and indeed worldwide, can read to remind themselves that they are not alone. Indeed, toward the end of his homily, His Eminence quite literally brought me to tears when he said, “Dear brothers and sisters, never be ashamed of Christ, his Gospel, his Truth – or your identity as Jesus’ disciples. Always be proud of who you are.”

Cardinal Wuerl clearly knows what is happening in our society and is responding to it, in his own particular way and gentle charism, just as his brother bishops such as Cardinals Dolan and George, and Archbisshops Chaput and Lori, among others, are doing in their own dioceses. In doing so they are following in the footsteps of their predecessors in leading Christ’s flock, from St. Peter and the Apostles onward, even when it would be so much easier and more comfortable to say nothing. We all know from history that, apart from St. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, going along to get along is what happened to the English bishops, when Henry VIII decided that his own sexual incontinence was more important than his immortal soul, and indeed more important than the immortal souls of the English people.

How blessed we are, by contrast, that in the current age of impending persecution – for make no mistake, that day has arrived – that we Catholics have bishops, priests, and religious who are not afraid to witness to the truth of our Faith, through the teachings of Christ and His Church. We Catholics are all members of a Church on Earth made up entirely of sinners, who are constantly falling and having to pick ourselves up again. That is something which is hard enough to do when things are going relatively well. Yet to be able to do so while being under attack is something that will test not only the mettle of our shepherds, but our own as well.


“Daniel in the Lion’s Den” by Briton Rivière (1872)
Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool