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Standing up for Christ and his Church in our time
By Fr. Callistus Isara, MSP
Good evening and welcome to this talk. I thank you for taking time to come to listen to this talk.
I wish to express my appreciation to the Adult Faith Formation of St. Michael’s Church for
organizing this talk every year. I am pleased and truly delighted to share this forum with you. I
chose this year’s topic in the light of recent persecution of Christians in various parts of the
world. As Christians and members of the Body of Christ, we are in solidarity with all persecuted
Christians. St. Paul notes that if one part of the Body of Christ suffers, “all the parts suffer with
it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy” (1 Corinthians 12:26).
The history of our faith, from the time of the apostles till the present, shows a consistent pattern
of people standing up for Christ and his Church. It is incumbent on every generation of Catholics
to stand up for Christ and his Church. This talk underscores the witness and persecution of the
apostles, the early Christians, Christians in our own time and their standing up for Christ; it then
urges all Catholics today to equally stand up for Christ and his Church in our time.
The witness and persecution of the twelve apostles
After the resurrection of Christ, he commanded the apostles to preach the good news to the ends
of the earth (Mt 28:19-20). The apostles remained faithful to this Great Commission. The coming
of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost transformed the apostles from fear to courageous
witnesses to the resurrection of Christ. But the apostles’ zeal for Christ was short-lived because
of their instant persecution by the Sanhedrin that had earlier tried Jesus Christ and handed him
over to Pontius Pilate. Peter and the other apostles preached persuasively about the resurrection
of Christ on the Day of Pentecost. This Pentecost preaching drew three thousand members to
their fold. The fundamental message of the apostles was that Jesus rose from death was indeed
alive. This message of Christ’s resurrection, the cornerstone of the Christian faith, infuriated the
Jewish authority that they wasted no time in persecuting the apostles.
While Peter was still preaching after he and John had cured the lame man at beautiful Gate of the
Temple (Acts 3:1-10), the authority sent priests and law enforcement officers to arrest Peter and
John and had them thrown into jail. This marked the beginning of the persecution of the apostles
and of Christians, a persecution which has endured till date. The authority was angry at the
message of the resurrection preached by Peter and the other apostles. Peter and John were
dragged before the Sanhedrin and were warned never to preach the name of Jesus again. Peter
and John replied to the Sanhedrin: “You must judge whether in God’s eyes it is right to listen to
you and not to God. We cannot stop proclaiming what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20).
The Jewish authority further arrested all the apostles and threw them into prison. The Sanhedrin
was infuriated that the apostles defied its order not to preach the name of Jesus. It was at this
juncture that Gamaliel, a Doctor of the Law, intervened and asked the Sanhedrin to tread
carefully in dealing with the apostles. The Sanhedrin did not totally follow the advice of
Gamaliel as they had the apostles flogged and again ordered them not to preach the name of
Jesus. For their part, the apostles were “glad to have had the honour of suffering humiliation for
the sake of the name” (Acts 5:41). What about ourselves? As a Christian, have I suffered
humiliation for the sake of Christ? Am I willing to suffer humiliation for the sake of the name?
Am I influenced by Pentecostal gospel of prosperity?
The Jewish authority did all they could to silence the apostles but they did not succeed. No one
can silence and suppress the name of Jesus Christ. No one can chain the Good News of Jesus
Christ. No authority on earth can stop the name of Jesus Christ from being proclaimed. As
Christians we have ourselves to blame if Jesus Christ is not known and proclaimed to the world.
No one can quench the flame of the Gospel of the risen Christ. No amount of intimidation can
stop Christ’s name being proclaimed. As Paul has attested, “all beings in the heavens, on earth
and in the underworld, should bend the knee at the name of Jesus” (Phil 2:10). Like the apostles,
all Christians are called to witness to Christ. There should be a passion, a fire that pushes the
Christian to witness to Christ in all circumstances including suffering and death.
The witness and persecution of St. Paul
Like the twelve apostles, Paul preached vigorously to both Jews and Gentiles the resurrection of
Christ. Paul preached the kerygma of the resurrection which he inherited from the Galilean
apostles and which he faithfully transmitted to the Churches he founded. Paul unabashedly
preached the resurrection of Christ though he was sometimes laughed at. Paul preached to the
intelligentsia of Athens and engaged them in a robust intellectual discourse on the resurrection of
Christ. Some of the Gentiles were skeptical of Paul’s message, some others believed, and some
just laughed at him for such a ridiculous message. The intellectuals at the Areopagus burst into
laughter when Paul said that God raised Christ from death: “At this mention of rising from the
dead, some of them burst out laughing; others said, ‘We would like to hear you talk about this
another time (Acts 17:32). Like Paul, are we ready to be laughed at for the sake of Christ?
The persecution of the Twelve was the tip of the iceberg compared to the persecution of Paul.
The trials, sufferings, and persecutions Paul endured for the sake of Christ are clearly attested to
in the scriptures (2 Corinthians 11:21-28). The Jews were bent on destroying Paul and
eliminating him. Some Jews even made a solemn vow “not to eat or drink until they killed Paul”
(Acts 23, 12, 14). But Paul was unfazed by his persecution; he endured all for the sake of Christ.
Paul preached even in prison while in chains. He was stubborn for Christ; he was the epitome of
standing up for Christ. In fact, no one ever stood up for Christ as Paul did. Paul said: “I do not
place any value on my own life, provided that I complete the mission the Lord Jesus gave me--to bear witness to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24). When some disciples of our Lord
persuaded Paul not to return to Jerusalem because of their love for him and the persecution
awaiting him, Paul responded to them: “For I am ready not only to be bound but even to die in
Jerusalem for the sake of the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13).
Predictably, Paul was arrested when he arrived in Jerusalem and charges were filed against him
by this crop of Jews who were determined to eliminate him. Like the Twelve, Paul appeared
before the Sanhedrin. Paul being a very intelligent man asserted that he was being persecuted for
his beliefs as a Pharisee primarily in the resurrection. The effect was instantaneous as it divided
the Sanhedrin which comprised of both Pharisees and Sadducees.
God protected Paul from the numerous Jewish attacks on his life until he finally brought the
Good News of Jesus Christ to Rome, the capital of the world at that time. Though under house
arrest in Rome, Paul preached freely to the Jews and all who visited him the resurrection of
Christ. Thus, persecution could not stifle the Good News from reaching Rome. Today, Rome
stands as the centre of the Catholic faith, with the Pope as the successor of St. Peter and Paul. It
is indispensable for us as Christians to follow in the footsteps of Peter and Paul. We should be
ready to endure persecution for the sake of Christ. As Paul says, “Indeed, all who want to live a
godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12). Thus a follower of Christ cannot
escape persecution.
The witness and persecution of the early Christians
The persecution of Christians continued from the time of the apostles until 313 AD with the
Edict of Milan by the Emperor Constantine. Until 313 AD, it was a crime punishable by death in
the Roman Empire to be a Christian. Like the apostles, the early Christians stood up for Christ
and gladly embraced martyrdom for the sake of Christ.
The early Christians cherished those who stood up for Christ and the Catholic faith to the point
of death. Hence there was a cult of martyrs in the early centuries of the Church. The moving
accounts of the martyrs (Martyrologies) of the early Church were documented to promote the
cult and reverence for the martyrs in order to emulate their heroic witness to Christ. The early
Christians celebrated every year the anniversary of martyrs’ death. Friends, relatives, and others
gathered yearly to celebrate the anniversary of a martyr’s death, which they regarded as dies
natalis, that is, the anniversary of the martyr’s birthday into heaven. The cult of martyrs was very
popular in the North African Church in the early Church as evidenced in the accounts of the
martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, and St. Cyprian, etc.
The early Christians chose death rather than renounce Christ; many martyrs were given the
chance to renounce Christ for their freedom but they chose to die for the sake of Christ. They
also refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods. They proclaimed that Jesus is Lord instead of
Caesar. And they were killed for refusing to offer sacrifice to the cult of deified Emperors. For
example, when St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, was asked to renounce Christ, he replied: “I
have been a servant of Christ for eighty-six years and no evil has come near me; how can I now
speak against my king who has saved me?” (THE DIVINE OFFICE, VOL II, p. 37*). St.
Polycarp was killed at the age of 86 by being burnt to death at the city stadium. One of the most
moving accounts of martyrdom of the early Church was that of Saints Perpetua and Felicity of
Carthage. Vivia Perpetua was a 22 year old noble woman and a nursing mother while Felicity
was her pregnant slave girl. Though one was a noble woman and the other a slave, both women
became equal and united in standing up for Christ. They were killed on March 7, 203 AD.
Perpetua refused her father who persuaded her to renounce Christ in order to spare her life.
The witness of the English martyrs: John Fisher and Thomas More
The Church celebrates every year on June 22, two English saints and martyrs: John Fisher and
Thomas More, a bishop and a lay person respectively. I deliberately chose them for this talk to
underscore the call of all Christians to be saints and to stand up for Christ and his Church. John
Fisher and Thomas More died for the defense of the faith and the teachings of the Church.
Saint John Fisher was born in 1469 AD in Yorkshire, England. He studied theology at
Cambridge and was ordained a priest at the age of 22. He progressed steadily in the academic
ladder through the senior posts in the University of Cambridge before he eventually became the
Vice Chancellor of the University. In 1504 AD, John Fisher was appointed the bishop of
Rochester and the Chancellor of Cambridge University. John Fisher was indeed a great bishop
and scholar. He refused to acquiesce to the desires of King Henry VIII who sought his valid
marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, annulled. Bishop Fisher solidly stood behind
Catherine and argued persuasively against the suit of Henry VIII. The pope decided in favour of
Catherine. Predictably, Henry VIII was infuriated and he imprisoned Bishop Fisher twice. Once
he knew that the Church was on John Fisher’s side, this evil and diabolical King ordered all
those in the kingdom to take an oath to recognize his children with his new wife Anne of Boleyn
as successors to the throne. Bishop Fisher refused to take the oath and he was subsequently
arrested and thrown into prison at the London Tower. Bishop Fisher was charged with treason.
He was tried and condemned to death on June 17, 1535 AD, and was finally executed on June
22, 1535 AD. John Fisher was created a Cardinal while in prison by Pope Paul III. King Henry
VIII remarked that John Fisher would not have a head to put the hat on. Bishop John Fisher told
the crowd before his execution that “he was dying for the faith of Christ’s Holy Catholic
Church” (Burns, Paul. BUTLER’S LIVES OF THE SAINTS. New Concise Edition, p. 286).
For his part, Thomas More was born in 1477 AD. He was educated at Oxford University and
became a renowned intellectual. After discerning a vocation to the priesthood, Thomas More
eventually got married to Jane Colt and had four children with her, three daughters and a son;
Jane Colt died after only four years of marriage to Thomas More. Thomas More married again
and lived an ascetical life with monastic discipline and secular life as a lay person. Thomas More
household prayed together daily as a family and there was reading of scriptures at meals.
Like John Fisher, King Henry VIII originally admired Thomas More. Thomas More rose through
the ranks of the kingdom until he was appointed Chancellor of England in 1529 AD. Like Fisher
he argued against the suit of Henry VIII and refused to attend the coronation ceremony of Anne
Boleyn. He was forced to resign as the Chancellor after just three years because of his staunch
defense of the faith and the position of the Church with regard to Henry’s marriage to Anne
Boleyn. Like John Fisher he refused to take the oath of the Act of Succession. Like John Fisher
he was imprisoned at the London Tower. He resolutely obeyed his conscience and refused all
efforts by his family to acquiesce to the whims and caprices of this evil King Henry VIII. He was
charged with treason, tried, and eventually executed on July 6, 1535 AD.
Thomas More resigned himself to God’s will with regard to his death. But he made it abundantly
clear to all that he would not betray his conscience. He wrote from prison a moving letter to his
eldest daughter Margaret: “And therefore, mine own good daughter, never trouble thy mind, for
anything that ever shall keep me in this world. Nothing can come but that which God wills. And
I make myself very sure that whatever that be, seem it never so bad in sight, it shall indeed be
best” (THE DIVINE OFFICE, VOL III, p. 62-63*).
Persecution of Christians in our time
The persecution of Christians has continued from the time of the apostles through the early
centuries of the Church till date. Recently, there has been a new wave of systematic persecution
of Christians in the world. This includes the Western world where some persons and
governments want to wipe out Christianity from the secular order. Christian values are trampled
upon by countries that were once regarded as Christian nations. Christians face persecution in
many Arab countries and in the Middle East. Christians are often persecuted in predominantly
Muslim countries. In Nigeria, many Christians in different parts of core Northern Nigeria
undergo varied degrees of discrimination and persecution. The onslaught of Boko Haram is
indescribable as many Christians have been killed and countless churches destroyed.
Just as the apostles and Christians of the early Church stood up for Christ, many persecuted
Christians today continue to stand up for Christ despite the danger they face. For example, last
year, we all witnessed a young Sudanese doctor, Miriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishaq (born on
November 3, 1987), who was arrested and sentenced to death for apostasy on May 14, 2014. She
was sentenced to death for marrying a Christian named Daniel Wani in 2012, thus allegedly
changing her religion from Islam to Christianity by marriage. The presiding judge gave her the
chance to renounce her Christian faith and be freed but Dr. Ishaq refused. She told the judge: “I
have always been a Christian and I have not apostatized.” She was subsequently sentenced to
death. Some of her relatives begged her to renounce her faith, regain her freedom and then flee
the country but she refused to renounce Christ and Christianity. After an international outcry, Dr.
Ishaq was eventually freed and flew to Rome with her family on July 4, 2014, in an Italian
Government plane. When Dr. Ishaq met with Pope Francis, she thanked Pope Francis for praying
for her, while Pope Francis thanked her for witnessing to Christ. Dr. Ishaq and her family have
safely relocated to the United States.
Recently, 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians were killed in Libya by ISIS in February (2015) and 30
Ethiopian Christians also killed in Libya in April (2015) by ISIS. Commenting on these senseless
killing of innocent Christians, Pope Francis said: “the blood of persecuted Christians is crying
out to everyone who can still distinguish between good and evil” (VATICAN CITY.
April 21, 2015). Christians face persecution and death every day in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq,
Syria, etc. In Saudi Arabia, Christians are not allowed to publicly practice their faith. It is said
that only less than half of a million Christians are left in Iraq. And one third of the estimated
600,000 Christians in Syria have fled.
To seek and live the truth as a Christian is to stand up for Christ
Thanks to our religious freedom in the United States and other parts of the world, Christians are
unlikely to face outright martyrdom and even persecution for their faith. However, as Christians
we owe it to Christ and our conscience to seek the truth, live the truth, and embrace the truth.
After all, Jesus Christ is the truth himself. Jesus declares, “I am the Way; I am Truth and Life”
(John 14:6). Our Lord also says, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John
8:32). An example of standing up for the truth is John the Baptist who died for the truth. John the
Baptist was a man of truth, spoke the truth, lived the truth, and died for the truth.
A Christian is called to live the truth always; a Christian is to further the cause of justice and
truth in the society. Since Jesus is the truth, all Christians should live by the truth. Like John the
Baptist, all Christians should live the truth, speak the truth, and be prepared to die for the truth.
To stand up for Christ means to be courageous to stand for the truth; it means to sometimes stand
against the majority. It should be noted that the majority is not always right; hence the saying the
tyranny of the majority. The Christian may be ridiculed for standing up for Jesus Christ and what
is right. The Bible exhorts Christians: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’
sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:10). The Christian who does not compromise his
or her faith and morals stands up for Christ.
Even if we do not face outright persecution in the practice of our faith, it is our Christian duty to
be faithful to our conscience, as formed by adhering to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and constantly
striving for the truth and what is right. As St. Cyprian of Carthage in his treatise to Fortunatus
poignantly puts it, “There is a crown for those who in times of persecution fight the good fight;
there is a crown too for those who in times of peace keep true to their conscience” (DIVINE
OFFICE, VOL. III, p. 328*). Thus, the same heavenly reward awaits all those who remain
faithful to Christ until death, either through martyrdom or by being true to their conscience.
Evidently, our world is becoming increasingly secular and acceptable of all kinds of lifestyle.
However, the Gospel of Christ needs to be proclaimed in order to permeate the secular order
with its values. The Media oftentimes dominates the conversation and deciphers moral issues
through opinion polls. Thus going against the popular opinion of the Media requires tremendous
courage. It should be noted that morality does not depend on opinion polls. The gospel message
of Jesus Christ has always been countercultural. Thus, as Catholics, it is indispensable to stand
up for Christ and the teachings of his Church.
Like the apostles, the early Christians, and countless heroic witnesses throughout the centuries of
the Church, we should stand up for Christ and his Church in our time: at home, in our family, in
our society, on the street, in our places of work, in the Media, in social media, in our
relationships, etc. We should witness to Christ in joy and sorrow, hope and despair, riches and
poverty, good health and sickness, success and failure, etc. Evidently, these times are difficult
times to be Catholic. But it should be noted that there has never been an easy time to be a
Catholic in the history of the Church. If we do our best to serve the Lord Jesus Christ, and stand
up for him and his Church, the Lord will fill our hearts with joy and peace; the kind of joy and
peace that the world cannot give (John 15:27; 16:22). The Christian never walks alone because
he or she has Christ. Let us always remember that Christ’s grace is sufficient for us (2
Corinthians 12:9) and we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Phil 4:13).
Thank you for listening and God bless you.
Being a talk delivered at St. Michael’s Catholic Church, 100 Oak Drive South,
Lake Jackson, Texas, 77566, USA, on Sunday, August 2, 2015.