Who Will Endure the Coming Persecution?

During the days when David was king (1010-970 BC), the leaders of the tribe of Issachar were lauded because they “were endowed with an understanding of the times and … knew what Israel had to do…” (I Chron. 13:33). Jesus rebuked the crowds for not understanding their present age: they knew how to predict the weather, whether it was going to rain or be hot, but they didn’t know how to interpret the times they lived in (Luke 12:54-56).

In the West, in the battle between the armies of secularism and those promoting Judeo-Christian values, if the armies of light don’t understand the times, they won’t have a strategy for taking action. D-Day was only possible because General Eisenhower had a sufficient, though not exhaustive, understanding of the dynamics and details of the world conflict, in general, and, specifically, in relation to the beaches of Normandy and surrounding environs.

Recently, American Catholics received a clarion call from one of their generals, Archbishop Charles Chaput, to be in the world but not of the world, via an address he gave at the 2016 Bishop’s Symposium. Such a substantive and compelling message was only possible because he was as intimately familiar with the present American Zeitgeist as General Eisenhower was with the Great War. In a culture that is becoming increasingly adversarial to Judeo-Christian values, obscurantism is not an option; not for the most decorated generals nor for the humblest private. The ostrich is not our symbol; the clear-eyed, vigilant watchman is.

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However, even if both leadership and foot soldier understand the cultural terrain and how to engage it, all is for naught if people of faith, from top to bottom, aren’t willing to lay down their lives for the cause. A military campaign would be doomed to fail if, because of the fear of death, the combatants on your side retreated or deserted every time the battle waxed hot.

With the secular elite gaining the ascendancy, the possibility of actual martyrdom, which is already happening in other nations because of radical Islam (e.g., Nigeria, Syria, Central African Republic), seems more and more plausible in the decades to come. This caused another general in the American Catholic Church, the late, great Cardinal Francis George, to predict, “I expect to die in my bed, my successor to die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.”

Yes, someone reading this article may actually be martyred someday by the jackbooted contingent of unbelief or radical Islam. However, though not all of us are called to that glory, all of us are called to embrace a spirit of martyrdom. Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Many men needed to die for the Allied forces to advance on the beaches of Normandy, but many more needed to live, and, yet, be willing to die, for the campaign to succeed. Tertullian was right: “…the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” but if everyone dies, who is left to carry on the fight?

It’s the living martyrs who carry on the fight. They are the grains of wheat who have fallen into the ground and are dying (John 12:24). They are the remaining witnesses (the Greek word for martyr, martureo, means “witness”), who are “always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in [their] mortal flesh” (II Cor. 4:10). They eat his flesh and drink his blood and “proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” (I Cor. 11:26). They have been crucified with Christ and nevertheless live (Gal. 2:20): the transitory pleasures of this world and the magnetic pull of their own concupiscence become less alluring each day as they long for their heavenly homeland.

This isn’t to say that they have attained some state of sinless perfection, only that they have good will: they know they are not fully crucified with Christ yet but they want to be. They probably struggle with one or more of the Seven Deadly Sins, and, like the tax collector, often cry out, “God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). They have their doubts and fears too, but, like the father of the boy with the mute spirit (Mark 9:24), petition God: “I believe; help my unbelief!”

The Mass provides them with a tutorial each week as the death of their Lord is re-presented to them. They seek to imitate his Passion in humility and self-sacrifice and practice a faith that works through love. Their agenda is to serve, not be served. A case could be made that their task is sometimes more difficult than the actual martyr’s because, compared with the quick death at the hands of the firing squad, the living martyr dies a little bit each day as they carry their own cross.

It’s interesting to note that in Navy SEAL training, only about 10 percent of the original SEAL wannabees make it through Hell Week and become Navy SEALS. Former SEAL Eric Greitens believes that the common characteristic that all the survivors have is an ability to look beyond their own pain and help their fellow soldier in need. Could there be a lesson here for Christian soldiers in the coming persecution? Read on.

My friends on the political and cultural Left always remind me not to romanticize the 1950s and make that decade The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet writ large. “Remember the lack of opportunity for people of color and women,” they tell me. Point taken. However, the Venerable Fulton Sheen had a television show, Life is Worth Living, that rivaled Milton Berle in ratings and won an Emmy Award. The popularity of that program showed that American culture in the 1950s was, in many ways, working with the Church more than against her. Raising God-fearing children was easier in this pre-MTV era. Most of your neighbors were likely to share your values and half of the adults you rubbed shoulders with that week attended church services. Mass attendance, according to some studies, by self-identified Catholics, hovered around 80 percent during the entire decade.

Those days are gone; fast-forward sixty years to a secularization process that is metastasizing more each day in the West. The apostle Paul was crystal clear: all that live godly lives in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. Religious liberties are quickly eroding. The controversy over the HHS contraceptive mandate looms on the cultural and judicial horizon. As the persecution increases, the Church is likely to get smaller. Like gold it must be refined by fire (1947.52 degrees Fahrenheit) in order to remove its impurities. Put another way, in the furnace of affliction, the living martyrs will stay, the poseurs will leave.

For example, those parishioners with a strong therapeutic sensibility, whose primary goal is to feel good, will leave the orthodox churches because persecution thwarts their agenda of achieving a plentitude of endorphins. Their spirituality, which is propelled by a journey of self-discovery, will wilt on the day the cost of discipleship is exacted, probably long before the powers that be put padlocks on the doors of the church. They will say, “This is not what I signed up for.” Without a theology of suffering undergirding their faith, the therapeutic personality will have to go elsewhere to “find themselves,” “connect with their passion,” and “follow their heart.”

The living martyrs, in contrast, will stay because they are dead to the agenda of feeling good: for them being good and doing good supersedes feeling good. The cross they carry makes a noise when it drags on the ground that drowns out the cacophonous voices of Neale Walsch, Deepak Chopra, Elizabeth Gilbert, and other gurus of self-indulgence.

The living martyrs agree with Simon Tugwell, OP, who asserts that “Christianity has to be disappointing, precisely because it is not a mechanism for accomplishing all our human ambitions and aspirations; it is a mechanism for subjecting all things to the will of God.” Tugwell defines the cross that the living martyrs carry: they embrace a spirit of self-denial when they encounter areas of their lives where their ambitions and aspirations are at cross-purposes (no pun intended) with the will of God.

Those congregants who have accommodated their lives to the dominant cultural ethos will also leave the churches that are submitted to a divine metanarrative (e.g., Scripture, Tradition, the Magisterium). You can’t serve two masters: you will end up hating one and loving the other. The coming persecution will force them to choose between the approval of men and remaining in an institution that feels more and more medieval and benighted, a “backward, unthinking” religion that hasn’t kept up with the times.

Often, one of the reasons these people will leave the Church is because they want to feel like they are on the winning team. Certain “Catholic” politicians in Washington, D.C., will leave and receive the reward of basking in the approval and adulation of fawning admirers they will meet at Georgetown cocktail parties and in the salons of Manhattan. The mainstream media will applaud their “courage and compassion,” and how much they’ve “grown.” After their political career is over, they may receive job offers from academia or news outlets like MSNBC.

The living martyrs will stay in the “pillar and ground of the truth” (I Tim. 3:15) because they are dead to the need for the approval of men. The only approval they want is to hear “Well done, you good and faithful servant.” For them this present age and elite opinion are like the California coastal fog that emerges in the morning but is gone by noon or like the People magazine they recently read in their dentist’s office: an endless parade of anecdotal ephemera destined for the scrap heap of history. Think of Freudianism. It reached its zenith in America in the 1950s, and now, for the most part, has been fully discredited.

Many who have a utilitarian agenda in their relationship to God will leave the Church and go back to their former way of life. The parallels to marriage are striking. The more utilitarian a marriage is the less chance it has of surviving. Often, when two people take their vows before the priest or pastor, they stand at the altar with unspoken agendas. He’s hoping/demanding that she will be emotionally supportive, respectful, and a willing sexual partner as he goes out to make a better life for them. She’s hoping/demanding that their marriage will have intimate conversation, romance, and an upper-middle-class lifestyle.

When reality doesn’t match the original vision, and the lush springtime gives way to the sweltering summer heat, spouses can become offended, leading to disillusionment, disenchantment, and even divorce. One of the purposes of marriage vows (“for better, for worse”) is to neutralize our demanding natures and call us to embrace a selfless agenda that is patterned after the Nazarene who came to serve not to be served.

The person with the utilitarian sensibility makes his or her relationship with Christ a means-to-an-end rather than an end-in-itself. In the philosophy of Martin Buber, this parishioner doesn’t have an “I-Thou” relationship with God but an “I-It.” The focus is not intimate communion with the Rose of Sharon but Christ giving them things: financial security, health, fulfilling vocation, happy marriage and family, friendships, a church where they feel “fed,” etc.

God becomes a Celestial Santa Claus; these people are the modern-day version of those souls who followed Jesus to get their fill of the loaves and fishes. If persecution should come and significantly reduce the gifts in Santa’s bag, many people will get offended, leave the Church, and return to their former way of life.

The living martyr, in contrast, has been crucified to the world and the world to them. They cling to their marriage vow: even if I should lose everything, I will still serve, honor, and glorify Christ. They are dead, and, in the process of dying, to this “everything,”—the transitory joys of this life. “Fidelity, fidelity, fidelity” is their mantra.

Such a death is not easy. They emotionally and spiritually feel the “nails” in their hands and feet, the “crown of thorns” on their head, and the “piercing of their side” is not lost on them. This experience is, as Mother Teresa says, the act of Christ drawing them closer to himself, hugging them, in a fellowship of suffering.

They’re not immune to the frustration of fallen existence. Some days they identify with St. Theresa of Avila, who after falling out of her carriage and into the mud, told God, “No wonder you have so few friends, when you treat the ones you have so badly!” But even this frustration can be offered up in union with Christ’s own suffering for the purpose of lavishing his saving grace on the whole world.


  • Jonathan B. Coe

    Jonathan B. Coe writes from the Pacific Northwest. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

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