Sunday’s Solemnity of Christ the King comes between the memorials of two of my favorite Jesuit martyrs, Bl. Miguel Pro (Nov. 23) and St. Edmund Campion (Dec. 1). These priests were killed in the religious persecution of twentieth century Mexico and sixteenth century England respectively. The proximity of these feast days reminds me of the issue that has lately been atop the list of the American bishops’ concerns: religious liberty.
I was asked to give a reflection for a community gathering on the feast of Miguel Pro, and as I thought about his life and martyrdom the question that I couldn’t shake was: why are American Catholics not more concerned about religious liberty? Catholic institutions have already been shuttered in Illinois and Massachusetts, and powerful cultural voices are explicitly calling for the exclusion of Christianity from the public square. Pro’s death occurred less than a century ago and on this continent. Do we think it cannot happen here? Why do American Catholics seem so sleepy?
There are obvious answers: the indifference (and often hostility) of the media; a general climate of secularism and religious indifferentism; political commitments that make raising the question uncomfortable for some, especially in an election year. But it’s perhaps more instructive to look a bit deeper, at attitudes ingrained in our American outlook that make us drowsy when it comes to religious liberty. Among other factors, three modern myths stand out.
The Myth of Progress. We like to think that we’re more enlightened than past ages. Technical and scientific progress have conquered diseases, increased material prosperity for millions, and expanded our knowledge of how the universe works. A great deal of political and commercial sloganeering relies upon the assumption that newer is always better.
And though it feels very good to think we’re better people than those of ages past (and rather easy, since they’re no longer around to defend themselves), we are no less susceptible to original sin than were the people of the Dark Ages. After all, which was history’s most bloody century? The twentieth, hands down. And much of the carnage came in the name of progress. We are not less vulnerable to the drives that produce persecution because we live in 2012 instead of 1220. But perhaps, because of the Myth of Progress, we are less likely to notice them.
The Myth of American Exceptionalism. America is unique and special nation, has been a tremendous force for good in the world, and provides much to be proud of and thankful for, politically, culturally, and even religiously. But Americans also are just as susceptible to original sin as, say, Germans or Cambodians. History has shown that Americans too are capable of evil on a breathtaking scale; slavery was with us from the beginning; what was once called “manifest destiny” would today be known as “ethnic cleansing”; more children have been killed through abortion than died in the Holocaust—and we’re still going.
The point is not to demean a remarkable nation, but to remind ourselves that there have been lots of remarkable nations in history. Many began with noble ideals and lost them along the way. We are not immune to serious moral error.
The Myth of the 1950s. This myth applies specifically to American Catholics and comes out of an era that still shapes how we think about ourselves as a Church, an era in which Catholicism was for its adherents an all-encompassing reality. One did one’s banking at a Catholic credit union, stood in line for confession on Saturday, socialized mostly with other Catholics, and even planned one’s meals around Church discipline. Teaching catechism was no worry because everybody knew it. The Church enjoyed great social prestige, to the point that Hollywood producers trembled at the thought of offending the Catholic hierarchy. The Church was a mass cultural phenomenon, and it was easy to think as Vatican II unfolded that the culture really was on the verge of mass conversion, that soon every screen in every theater would be showing Going My Way and Catholicism would continue as a mass cultural phenomenon—but bigger.
The 1950s are over and will not come again. Yet still we sometimes continue to talk as if the culture is on the verge of conversion en masse, and all we have to do is make ourselves just a little more likeable, tweak the Catholic formula just a tad, drop our six most unpopular teachings (or perhaps just the sixth commandment), pay a bit more attention to pop culture, and then (then!) there will be a seamless melding of Church and society. If only we can make ourselves just a wee bit more appealing, the world will fall at our feet. The problem is the world did not fall at the feet of our Lord. It crucified him.
The Church’s job is not to win popularity contests (or to win elections). It is to be faithful. The first reading for Miguel Pro’s feast day comes from Jeremiah, a book that records great persecution and destruction but nonetheless contains great hope. The hope found in Jeremiah, however, is not that the Babylonians will be won over to right worship of Yahweh, nor even that the Israelites themselves will turn back to the covenant in time to salvage their political independence. The hope found in Jeremiah is that despite Israel’s imminent political annihilation, a faithful remnant will endure. We need to let go of the hope that we can somehow resurrect Christendom and concentrate on nurturing a faith that can endure.
And what might that faith look like? I turn back to Miguel Pro. When I read his biography as a novice, two aspects of his life stood out. The first is that when Fr. Pro was a priest in hiding in Mexico City, using disguise and subterfuge to evade the anti-clerical authorities, his ministry was quite ordinary. He distributed food and clothing to poor people; he heard confessions; he brought communion to the sick; he said Mass with devotion. He simply did good pastoral work.
There is much to recommend Miguel Pro’s approach. External circumstances—persecution or prosperity—do not change the essence of Christianity. Fundamentals are still fundamental.
And the second aspect of Miguel Pro’s life that struck me was his sense of humor. His classmates remember a jokester, though a pious one, and there are no indications that Fr. Pro’s personality ever changed because of external persecution. This speaks to the profound sense of peace that comes from a deep and abiding trust in God.
Miguel Pro’s last words were “Viva Cristo Rey!” Witnesses say that he did not shout these words in defiance, but that he spoke them calmly, confidently. They were, in short, the words of a man who believed them, who knew that the governments of Babylon and Rome and Mexico and America would come and go, but the Lord of lords and King of kings will reign forever.
Jesus Christ is the king of the universe. The rest is details. If we keep this in mind, and let the King be king, whatever may come, then we too will be able to say with peace and confidence, when the time does come, “Viva Cristo Rey!”