By Fr David Stewart SJ
Once again the Holy Father invites us to join our hearts to his, and together to Christ’s, praying about the concerns that face humanity and church. The purpose of this, his personal network of prayer, is to mobilise ourselves and each other, through prayer and action, to engage with those challenges that face all of humanity. We’re invited to connect our prayer and the Church’s mission to those realities, which are expressed primarily in the Pope’s monthly Intentions.
This month, Pope Francis directs our attention to the persecuted Church, asking that we pray ‘that Christian communities, especially those who are persecuted, feel that they are close to Christ and have their rights respected’.
Persecution of Christian communities, and other religious minorities, is one of the topics of the Pope’s own prayer this month but not only now, because it is a constant concern in our time. Indeed, it is often clear that any minority could face opposition at any time, so hate-filled has our society become. We’re asked to take all this into our prayer this month.
This Evangelisation Intention is, of course, for all Christian communities, that each one might feel close to Christ, with a particular care for those who are maltreated on account of their faith. Each one, every Christian, would want to feel close to Jesus and the rest would want to pray for that closeness, that grace! All should have their rights respected and that’s an urgent matter because, despite humanity’s great advances in identifying and promoting human rights, there remains much to be done.
Vigilance, united with deep care for those who are suffering, even if they do not look or sound like us, is more necessary than ever. It is particularly tragic that the cradle of humanity’s three great Abrahamic religions has been, in our time, the site of some of the worst atrocities. Yet even amid the awful persecutions in those ancient biblical lands such as Syria and Iraq, there are clear signs of hope. ‘Our brothers and sisters there,’ says Fr Dominic Robinson SJ, of London’s Farm Street Jesuit Church, ‘inspire us to turn to the Cross as the symbol of the power of good over evil, of humanity over inhumanity, of hope over despair.’ Writing in this month’s Prayer Network “Living Prayer” booklet (a few copies still available), he reports that, even in those blood-soaked lands, Christians ‘are returning and are crucial to the work of reconciliation, bridge-building between faiths’. In this month of March, when our thoughts and prayers turn towards Lent, Holy Week and the Cross, our prayer and our fasting is enlivened by the promise of Easter renewal to come. The closeness to Christ, for which we pray with the Pope this month, will be real in our Lenten and Easter observances.
Where else are the rights of Christian communities not respected? You don’t need to go to faraway lands to find rights denied to Christians. Secularism, in its aggressive, intolerant form, places many of the rest of us, here, in an analogous position. We are not asked to shed our blood or give our lives or lose our heritage by threat of violence. There is another persecution, closer to home. People of faith are frequently sneered at and belittled, mocked for being unsophisticated or for clinging to outdated beliefs. Often, those who oppose faith and who mock believers make no effort to understand Christian faith. They refuse to see beyond narrow sectarian expressions of religion, failing to accept that our belief is that God’s love is inclusive. Our Catholic Church honours society’s autonomy and esteems diversity. We need to ask why secularism cannot abide pluralism. It’s as big a question as that which enquires why some versions of religious faith cannot accept pluralism. Starting instead with toleration could lead us to celebration of diversity, if we let it.
Last month, Pope Francis broke down yet another barrier when he became the first Pontiff to visit the Arabian Peninsula and there to celebrate Mass with over 100,000 people. His visit, and his dialogue with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, was a direct rebuttal of religious extremism and intolerance. He did not fail to condemn the devastating war in Yemen, in which his hosts are deeply implicated. In signing a historic document committing both Pope and Imam to working to build ‘Human Fraternity’, they each witnessed powerfully that the good of their own communities cannot be separated from how each views and treats the other. Pope Francis’ warm personal friendship with the Argentinian Rabbi Abraham Skorka, is well-known. The Rabbi often says that Pope Francis is the best friend the Jewish people have ever had in the Vatican. When Pope Francis went to the Holy Land in 2015, he took his friend the rabbi and a Muslim leader in the official party. With whom do we want to travel on the journey that ends persecution and leads to peace?
PROPOSALS for this MONTH:
Challenge 1: Take time to familiarise yourself with the realities faced by persecuted Christian communities, particularly in the Biblical lands; read about their sufferings in recent years and the destruction of church buildings and heritage, but also about their rebirth and resurrection.
Challenge 2: Investigate, in your parish or community, ways of supporting the organisation Aid to the Church in Need (www.acnuk.org) and the various ways that they propose for getting involved.
Challenge 3: Find some time, on your own or in your worshipping community, to pray about the issues raised by this Intention; hold the persecuted before Christ but pray for the persecutors, too, that their hearts may be changed.
As in the third Challenge for the month, include in your own prayers the persecuted fellow-Christians of the Biblical lands but also their persecutors. Present them all to the Heart of Christ. Ask that your own heart be opened and your prayer connected to the world. Note any unease or anxiety in your heart; present that to God’s Holy Spirit for healing.
Log on to our website www.click-to-pray.org or download the latest version of the app (on App Store, iTunes and Google Play) to pray with the Pope, and hundreds of thousands of Christians around the world. This app connects you with all who pray with the Pope in a quick, easy and creative way. Each day, the app offers a different set of short and accessible prayers including a fresh Morning Offering for each day. There’s a Prayer Wall on which you can post intentions, anonymously if you wish, for others to pray with you.
A few of our Living Prayer 2019 booklets are still available to order (U.K. nations only) for £1.75 + £1.20 P&P from our London office. Order with your delivery details from email@example.com or by text/voicemail to 07432 591 117.