Above is a painting titled " The Sending of the Twelve" by Duccio di Buoninsegna (ca. 1255-1319) from the early 14th century. He was an Italian painter of the Sienese School.
Jesus says “Remember, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves.” By saying this Jesus tries to warn his disciples in advance that the mission he is giving them will expose them to rejection and even outright hostility and violence.
The teaching of the Gospel challenges the ways of the world. Those living according to the ways of the world reject it and want to silence it. The Gospel challenges people to live not for themselves, but for God and others. It declares certain things to be immoral and challenges people to reform their lives. It even has political implications. So Herod sought to destroy Jesus even as an infant because he viewed him as a threat to his authority. The Pharisees sought to put Christ to death because they not only saw him as a blasphemer, but also as a threat to their authority.
In Nazi Germany and in Communist Russia parents literally informed on children and children on their parents and had them put to death because of the practice of their Christian faith.
Some people fall away from God in times of suffering. They don’t understand how bad things can happen to good people. But Jesus never promised an easy life for his disciples in this world. He warns us that his followers would suffer persecution. Jesus says:
No disciple is above his teacher, no slave above his master.
It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, for the slave that he become like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more those of his household! (Matthew 10, 24-25).
When the Apostles began to suffer persecution after Pentecost, they rejoiced to be found worthy of suffering for the name of Jesus (Acts 5, 40-41). We can suffer as a result of our own sins or we can suffer for Christ.
St. Peter in his first letter says:
But rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let no one among you be made to suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as an intriguer. But whoever is made to suffer as a Christian should not be ashamed but glorify God because of the name. (1 Peter 3, 13-16)
It was only after Jesus had risen from the dead that they understood the Scriptures that Jesus had tried to explain to them. Then only after receiving the Holy Spirit were the Apostles willing and able to preach the Gospel without fear.
The persecution of Christians is not just a thing of the past. It continues to our present time and will occur until the end of time. John Henry Cardinal Newman writing in the nineteenth century said:
The instance cannot be found in the history of mankind, in which an anti-Christian power could long abstain from persecution.
Although there have been a few instances of physical persecution of pro-lifers, most of the persecution we endure is psychological. The values of the Gospel of Life are at odds with the culture of death. Therefore we shouldn’t be surprised whenever our preaching is met with incomprehension, criticism, disapproval or outright rejection.
If we want to be faithful to Christ, we will also suffer some type of persecution. We need to learn to accept it without becoming discouraged by it. It’s difficult, because we all want to be understood, appreciated and respected.
Studying the history of the Church and the lives of the saints helps us to understand how the message of the Gospel can survive and even thrive in spite of persecution. The early Christians recognized as Tertullian wrote in the early 3rd century:
The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.
St. Ambrose of Milan led St. Augustine into the Church through his preaching and prayers. He himself endured the persecution of many exiles encouraged his followers to hold fast to Christ during persecution. He asked:
How do we hold him fast? Not by restraining chains or knotted ropes but by bonds of love, by spiritual reins, by the longings of the soul.
If you also, like the bride, wish to hold him fast, seek him and be fearless of suffering. It is often easier to find him in the midst of bodily torments, in the very hands of persecutors.
His bride says: How short a time it was after I left them. In a little space, after a brief moment, when you have escaped from the hands of your persecutors without yielding to the powers of this world, Christ will come to you, and he will not allow you to be tested for long.
If we feed ourselves spiritually through prayer, spiritual reading meditation and the sacraments we will find the courage to endure persecution.
When we read the lives of the saints we see that sometimes the persecution they experienced came from leaders in the Church. But the saints did not blame their suffering on the Church itself and their suffering only made them cleave all the more to Christ, his Church and the sacraments.
St. Jerome says that persecution is not only not to be feared, it is in some sense necessary to live a good Christian life.
Nothing is to be more feared than to long a peace. You are deceived if you think a Christian can live without persecution. He suffers the greatest persecution of all who suffers none. A storm puts a man on his guard and obliges him to exert his utmost efforts to avoid shipwreck.
St. Ambrose said:
Be devoted to God and do not fear, for no wounds can come to those who follow Christ. Even if they take away the life of your body, Christ is still with you.
This is a link to the story of St. Berard and his companions. They were Franciscan martyrs who were beheaded on January 16, 1220 when they preached in that country and refused to renounce their faith in Jesus Christ. When their relics were brought to Lisbon, it inspired St. Anthony of Padua to join the Franciscans. We can ask their prayers for us as we share the Gospel in an inceasingly difficult environment and to help us to have the courage of our convictions.