Here is the text of an address given Saturday by Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver to the Northern Lieutenancy of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre.
* * *
What comes next after the Year of Faith?
This past year we have been celebrating the Year of Faith, a time in which we, the faithful, have been called to deepen our faith and to grow closer to Christ and his Church. For many Catholics, this has been a time of renewal and grace. But for many in the Middle East—especially Christians—this time has been a period of extreme trial.
This morning I want to respond to the question of “What do we do next after the Year of Faith?” by looking at the witness of our persecuted brothers and sisters in the Middle East.
There is a town by the name of Maalula (pronounced Mah-loo-lah) that is one of the most famous and important Christian places in Syria. It is a historically Christian town, where a version of Aramaic—the language Jesus spoke, can still be heard today.
In the last two weeks, the inhabitants of Maalula have been on the front lines of the fighting between the troops of President Bashar al-Assad and rebels who are trying to topple his regime. The Christians are often suspected of siding with the government and are therefore treated with suspicion by the rebel fighters, whose ranks appear to contain some radical Islamists who are not Syrian.
According to the Greek-Catholic Patriarch Gregory III Laham (pronounced Lahm), several Christian churches have been damaged in the back-and-forth fighting.
One Christian woman who escaped from Maalula spoke to the Rome-based Fides news agency and related the story of how some of her relatives died for the faith.
On September 7, armed rebels affiliated with the Islamist groups Al-Nusra Front and Al-Qaeda descended on the town and began entering houses. As they went through Maalula, the rebels defaced any sacred images they found in the homes.
In one house, the militants found three Greek Catholic men and one woman: Mikhael Taalab, his cousin Antoun Taalab, Sarkis el Zakhm, who was Mikhael’s grandson, and the woman who related the tragedy to Fides, using the name “A.” The rebels demanded that everyone present convert to Islam or face death.
Sarkis el Zakhm, the grandson, responded: “I am a Christian and if you want to kill me because I am a Christian, do it.” Sarkis, together with the two other men in the house, was killed in cold blood. Somehow, the woman was only injured and miraculously survived. She is currently being treated at a hospital in Damascus.
The funeral for the three Christian men, which was attended by 2,000 people, took place on September 10 at the Greek-Catholic cathedral in Damascus and was presided over by the Melkite Patriarch Laham.
I share this story because I believe it will help us to respond to the question: “What do we do once the Year of Faith is over?”
In the Holy Land the situation has not deteriorated as drastically as it has in Syria, but Christians there are still faced with difficult circumstances that lead many of them to emigrate.
The unrest in places like Syria, Egypt and Iraq has contributed to a refugee crisis in the region, and this has impacted Christians, too. In Syria alone, the two-year conflict has caused 450,000 of the country’s almost 2 million Christians to flee their homes. Recently I viewed a film on the presence and work of the Equestrian Order in the Holy Land which noted that the Christian presence in Bethlehem has gone from 70 percent to 12 percent over the past several years. That is a 58 percent drop!
As we reflect on the suffering of our fellow Christians in the Holy Land and the Middle East, they can teach us about the Year of Faith and reinforce for us what Popes Benedict and Francis say we should do once this time of grace draws to a close on November 24, 2013.
When he announced the Year of Faith in in his “motu proprio,” (on his own initiative) Porta Fidei inOctober 2011, Pope Benedict called it “a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the one Savior of the world” (“motu proprio” Porta Fidei, 6).
Benedict XVI further explained that he decided to convoke the Year of Faith because the faith is no longer a guaranteed part of society. “Whereas in the past it was possible to recognize a unitary cultural matrix, broadly accepted in its appeal to the content of the faith and the values inspired by it, today this no longer seems to be the case in large swathes of society, because of a profound crisis of faith that has affected many people,” he wrote (Porta Fidei, 2).
To understand how faith is no longer woven into the fabric of society, one only has to look at the story of Sarkis, the young Syrian Catholic who gave his life for the faith, and ask the question: “Does our society understand this kind of sacrifice? Does our culture honor courageous faith like his?”
I think the answer to those questions is that Western society finds any faith-rooted sacrifice like his almost incomprehensible because our culture is so focused on self-promotion and self-satisfaction.
Sarkis and his relatives were able to stand for their faith because it was not just something they felt was right at the moment; it was integral to their identity and they believed it was the Truth. The natural consequence of their belief in Jesus and his Church was for them to give public witness to it, even if it meant death.
Our brothers and sisters who are giving their lives for the faith, no matter where they are in the world, offer us a model of courage that we need to emulate as we seek to live out our faith. Filled with the Holy Spirit and receptive and cooperative with the gift of fortitude, they offer their lives as Jesus offered his on the cross—all for love of Jesus and in faithful witness to him and the Church.
In Porta Fidei Pope Benedict beautifully describes how faith grows and gives certainty to one’s life, which naturally leads to sharing the love, joy and truth experienced in Christ.
It is here too that we find the answer to the question, “What comes after the Year of Faith?”
“Only through believing,” Benedict writes, “does faith grow and become stronger; there is no other possibility for possessing certitude with regard to one’s life apart from self-abandonment.”
This surrender of one’s life in love and trust to Jesus becomes “a continuous crescendo, into the hands of a love that seems to grow constantly because it has its origin in God” (Porta Fidei, 7). Let those words penetrate your hearts.
Four months after the Year of Faith began, Pope Benedict revealed to the world that he was renouncing the papacy—a step not taken in centuries and one that showed his own surrender to God’s providence.
Although he spoke about the importance of evangelization throughout his pontificate, Benedict XVI spoke in Porta Fidei about it as the natural outgrowth of the Year of Faith.
“In rediscovering his (God’s) love day by day,” he wrote, “the missionary commitment of believers attains force and vigor that can never fade away. Faith grows when it is lived as an experience of love received and when it is communicated as an experience of grace and joy. It makes us fruitful, because it expands our hearts in hope and enables us to bear life-giving witness ….”
As we all know, Pope Francis was elected in March 2013 to succeed Benedict. Not long after he began his ministry, Pope Francis picked up where his predecessor left off, declaring that the response to the Year of Faith is to carry Christ to “the outskirts of society.”
In his first encyclical Lumen Fidei—which he called the “work of four hands” because of Benedict’s contribution—Pope Francis reflected on how the early Christians were changed by faith and how it inspired them in their mission.
Francis wrote, “In the acts of the martyrs, we read the following dialogue between the Roman prefect Rusticus and a Christian named Hierax: ‘Where are your parents?’ the judge asked the martyr. He replied: ‘Our true father is Christ, and our mother is faith in him.’”
Pope Francis recalled how, for the early Christians, faith was “an encounter with the living God revealed in Christ, [which] was indeed a ‘mother,’ for it had brought them to the light and given birth within them to divine life, a new experience and a luminous vision of existence for which they were prepared to bear public witness to the end.”
In his message for the 2013 World Mission Sunday, Pope Francis underscored that faith is “a gift, not reserved for a few but offered with generosity. … It is a gift that one cannot keep to oneself, but it is to be shared. If we want to keep it only to ourselves, we will become isolated, sterile and sick Christians.”
He also pointed out that we “live in a time of crisis that touches various sectors of existence, not only the economy, finance, food security, or the environment, but also those involving the deeper meaning of life and the fundamental values that animate it.” “The men and women of our time,” he stated, “need the secure light that illuminates their path and that only the encounter with Christ can give.”
I believe the answer to the question “What do we do after the Year of Faith?” is clear. First, we are invited to continue to grow in intimacy with Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit. In our daily encounter with Jesus, he will fill us with the Holy Spirit and lead us to the Father. In our heart-to-heart prayer with Jesus, we are led into the communion of love in the Trinity. We are converted and we repent. In his public ministry, whether it was with Peter, Mary Magdalene, Zacchaeus, the Samaritan Woman, or John, or the many others he encountered, Jesus touched the hearts of those he encountered and their lives were forever changed. Our lives are forever changed the more we fall in love with Jesus.
Second, this time of grace and renewal must lead us as Catholics to share our joy and our faith in Christ with the world, and to do so courageously, inspired by the example of our brothers and sisters who are being persecuted and giving their lives for the faith. We must pray for the gifts of the Holy Spirit each day, and most especially for the gift of fortitude.
Finally, I would like to be even more specific and ask the same question of our order: “How will the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem be changed by the Year of Faith and what will we do next?”
This year as Pope Francis neared the end of his message for World Mission Sunday, he made a remark that I think has particular relevance for the order.
“The Church—I repeat once again—is not a relief organization, an enterprise or an NGO, but a community of people, animated by the Holy Spirit, who have lived and are living the wonder of the encounter with Jesus Christ and want to share this experience of deep joy, the message of salvation that the Lord gave us.”
Our order helps to support numerous apostolates that are definitively Christian in character and we must continue to make sure that we place Jesus at the center of our work.
However, an organization is only as strong as its individual members, and I think this is the first place where we should look for the impact of the Year of Faith. We should begin by asking ourselves: “How is Christ calling me to deeper intimacy with him and to share the joy of knowing him and give witness to him?”
To be sure, all of us will face instances where our faith is put to the test, even though they might not be as dramatic as the confrontations our brothers and sisters in the Middle East are experiencing.
In America today, the type of animosity we might experience because of our faith is more of a “soft persecution.” It comes in the form of faith being excluded from the public square, ridicule among family, friends or acquaintances, or lawsuits that seek to punish our beliefs as a form of “discrimination.”
We must respond by asking God for courage and joy as our culture becomes increasingly secular. It means resisting the temptation to leave our faith out of our friendships, our work and our family life, especially when we know it won’t be well-received. We must remember that this fear is always the work of the devil who wants to keep us from proclaiming Jesus Christ. The gifts of the Holy Spirit crush the father of lies and keep us in the truth of Jesus Christ. Our culture and society, just as in the Holy Land, will suffer if we fail to bring our beliefs and the joy of encountering Christ to it.
Knights and Ladies, you have a natural outlet for witnessing to the faith through your works of charity, both within the order and outside of it, and I encourage you to dedicate yourselves to them anew with the close of the Year of Faith.
The close of this Year of Faith provides an opportunity for you to be active in the public square, to be willing to have courage as Sarkis did and joyfully give witness to the Christian values our nation was built upon. And finally, you should not hesitate to speak up for Christians who are being persecuted in the Middle East.
I would like to close by reciting a prayer to Mary, Mother of the Church and Mother of our faith. It is the prayer with which Pope Francis closed Lumen Fidei
Mother, help our faith!
Open our ears to hear God’s word and to recognize his voice and call.
Awaken in us a desire to follow in his footsteps, to go forth from our own land and to receive his promise.
Help us to be touched by his love, that we may touch him in faith.
Help us to entrust ourselves fully to him and to believe in his love, especially at times of trial, beneath the shadow of the cross, where our faith is called to mature.
Sow in our faith the joy of the Risen One.
Remind us that those who believe are never alone.
Teach us to see all things with the eyes of Jesus, that he may be light for our path. And may this light of faith always increase in us, until the dawn of that undying day which is Christ himself, your Son, our Lord! Amen.