6th Sunday of Easter
May 24, 1987
1 Pet 3: 15-18
Holy Cross, Fairfield, Conn.
This weekend (May 20-21, 2017) at Holy Cross in Champaign, the deacons preached. Here's a 30-year-old homily from the other Holy Cross in my life.
“Should anyone ask you the reason for this hope of yours, be ever ready to reply, but speak gently and respectfully. Keep your conscious clear, so that, whenever you are defamed, those who libel your way of life in Christ may be shamed” (1 Pet 3: 15-16).
When Peter wrote this letter to Christians undergoing persecution, he described himself as a “witness to the sufferings of Christ” (5:1). He had witnessed Jesus’ public ministry, with its daily portion of human problems, with its persecution by the authorities, with its failure to convert many people. He had witnessed Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution.
More than that, Peter had experienced Christ’s passion in his own life, in his struggle to be courageous, to persevere, and to keep hoping for a share in Christ’s glory yet to be revealed to the faithful (5:1).
Maybe you’ve read Quo Vadis or seen the movie. If not, maybe you’ve at least heard the story. It tells how, when Nero’s persecution broke out, Peter was hightailing it out of Rome. About a mile out of town he met a strangely familiar figure walking toward the city. He realized it was Jesus.
“Domine, quo vadis? Lord, where are you going?” the shocked apostle asked his Master.
“If you won’t stay with my people in Rome,” Jesus answered him, “I’m going back in your place, to be crucified again.”
The shamed leader of the Christian faithful turned back and was soon arrested and crucified in the circus of Nero on the side of the Vatican hill.
|The church of "Domine, Quo Vadis" on the Appian Way|
As the Italians say, “Si non é vero, é ben trovato. If it’s not true, it ought to be.”
Peter calls his persecuted readers to understand their sufferings as part in the sufferings of Christ, and thereby to bear powerful, eloquent witness to Christ. He seems to view these sufferings as a natural consequence of faith, and Jesus, in the gospel, hints at this too (John 14:17). If we really take up our crosses each day to follow Jesus, we feel the burden.
So Peter advises his readers that their attitude in their daily struggle should find a model in Jesus. If they respond gently and respectfully to those who wrong them, they will disappoint and shame their persecutors.
Believers in America don’t face open, bloody persecution the way Peter and the 1st Christian generations did. What we face is far more subtle.
How are Christians attacked today? The latest outstanding example is the way that large segments of the population have gloated over the moral failures of Jim Bakker and his associates. First, all TV evangelists came under fire; some of them deserve to be under fire, but to generalize from the failings of a few and paint all of them as greedy and corrupt is a slander. And after the evangelists, more subtly, the convictions of all Christians are mocked.
Another example: the media take the political opinions of men like Jerry Falwell or Cardinal O’Connor and use them to put down fundamentalist Christians or Roman Catholics who don’t subscribe to opinions hallowed by the gods of TV and the press. A more specific example: In the mid-70s when Cardinal Madeiros vigorously denounced racism, particularly among the South Boston Irish, the media lionized him. In the 80s, when he vigorously denounced abortion during the campaign season, the media, NOW, the ACLU, and the politicians lambasted him for interfering in politics, civil rights, etc.
Another example: When was the last time you saw a reasonably accurate, sympathetic portrayal of Catholicism, our beliefs, our priests, ordinary Catholics like you in the movies or on TV? It certainly wasn’t in the recent episode of Family Ties in which Alex’s friend died; it’s not in MASH’s Fr. Mulcahy; it wasn’t in The Thorn Birds; it’s not in coverage of the Church and conflicts over homosexuality; foster care in NYC, birth control clinics in schools, speakers at church functions, or Fr. Curran and Abp. Hunthausen.
To be fair, the media have given plenty of good treatment to our bishops’ pastorals on peace and on the economy. Unfortunately, such objectivity seems to depend upon whether the Church’s position squares with what has been called “the liberal agenda.”
Another example: The US is the only Western nation in which Catholics—or Lutherans, Jews, or evangelical Christians—must pay for 2 school systems, one for everyone and one that respects their religious beliefs.
So we don’t have to be up against the lions in the Coliseum or cutting timber in a Siberian labor camp or hiding from a Salvadoran death squad to be defamed, to have our way of life in Christ libeled, to suffer for the Gospel.
|Anti-Catholic riot, Philadelphia, 1844|
Our speech and our way of living is to be gentle and respectful even as it is forceful and direct. We must live honestly, almost irreproachably. As we’ve seen in the PTL case and in some others, any moral flaw, any weakness, gives religion’s enemies plenty of ammunition. “If it should be God’s will that [we] suffer, it is better to do so for good deeds than for evil ones” (3:17).
How much good we could do if our neighbors could observe us as the pagan Romans observed the 3d-century disciples of Jesus, and exclaim, “Look how these Christians love one another!”