ALBANIA – Mgr George Frendo speaks at Global Christian Forum in Tirane

 On 2-4 Nov, a seminar was organized by Global Christian Forum in Tirane, Albania,  on “Discrimination, Persecution, Martyrdom”. Many Christians (Catholics, Orthodox and  Protestants) attended this meeting, most of them coming from countries where Christians are being persecuted and killed. On the last day of the seminar Mgr George Frendo, Auxiliary Bishop of Tirane, delivered this meditation during a prayer meeting in the Cathedral Church of Tirane:

 “Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”

Suffering has always been a mystery, especially for the fact that it also affects the innocent. It is still more of a mystery when it is the case of a just person who is made to suffer precisely because he is a just person. Yet Jesus proclaims “blessed” “those who are persecuted in the cause of right” (Mt 5, 10). It is the last of the eight beatitudes because it is the supreme expression of the whole Gospel.

This beatitude reflects the situation of the early Church. Hence we read: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves… “They will hand you over to sanhedrins and scourge you in their synagogues. You will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the pagans” Mt 10, 16-18). It is in this sense that we must understand those embarrassing words of Jesus: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth; it is not peace I have come to bring, but a sword…” (Mt 10, 34ff). Jesus’ proclamation, “blessed” the peacemakers, was to become an occasion of rift even amongst members of the same family.

Homer (Iliad 24, 525) wrote: “The sorrowless gods have so spun the thread, that wretched mortals live in pain”. But we can turn to Homer and tell him: “Our God is no ‘sorrowless god’, but the God who, by accepting sorrow unto death, has given a new meaning, a value to suffering”. Jesus himself was a victim of discrimination, slander, injustice and violent persecution. Marginalised in his birth, ridiculed and obstructed in his ministry, he accepted death as if he was a criminal. From the very beginning he encountered misunderstanding and contradiction, then opposition, rejection, and condemnation. But “a servant is not greater than his master” (Jn 15, 20). Moreover, he warned his disciples: “The hour is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is doing a holy duty for God” (Jn 16, 2). Perhaps never has such a prophecy found its realization as in our own days, when Christians are being persecuted and beheaded while their oppressors are shouting: “Allahu akbar”!

Jesus Christ was hopeless at advertising. If he were to come again to seek a job, I can guarantee that no one would dare to employ him as a sales-manager. Nowhere in the Gospels do we find him promising a blank cheque to those who accept to follow him; on the contrary, he warns: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mk 8, 34). For Jesus’ followers, the mystery of suffering becomes the “mystery of Transfiguration”. On Mount Tabor Jesus was transfigured at the moment when, according to Luke, Moses and Elijah were speaking with Jesus about his passion and death (Lk 9, 31). Hence, according to John, his last words before his priestly prayer which preceded his agony in the garden, were precisely these: “In the world you will have trouble, but be brave: I have conquered the world” (Jn 16, 33).

Persecution is a constant occurrence in salvation history. It is the attitude of a society that does not want to listen and to change its direction in life. It is a sign that the victim does not belong to this world. When your life is a living Gospel, you become unacceptable to sinners; so you must expect persecution. How true are those words of the Book of Wisdom (2, 12-15), where the godless say: “Let us lie in wait for the virtuous man, since he annoys us and opposes our way of life… Before us he stands, a reproof to our way of thinking, the very sight of him weighs our spirits down…”

Dietrich Bonhöffer, in his beautiful book The Cost of Discipleship, speaks of “cheap grace”, which means: “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross”. Centuries ago Thomas a Kempis stated: “Many want to sit at the table with Jesus, but very few are ready to accompany him up to the cross”. We would like that our life be always a spring, without the deadly heat of summer and the cruel cold of winter. But the prophetic mission of the Christian necessarily implies the experience of heat and cold, the experience of the cross. The Christian is called to fidelity not only when Christ is feeding us when we are hungry or when he is curing our relatives. We are called to be like the close friends of Christ who dared to stand by him at the cross. There we see only his mother, the still immature young lad John, son of Zebedee, and a few devout women. Genuine discipleship, faithful even unto the experience of death on a cross or of beheading by ISIS, demands that one is constantly fed by the Word of God.

May we be strong enough to suffer torture and beheading, may we never fall victims of persecution mania and self-pity. How often in our past history, or perhaps even today, have we sought privileges and interpreted upside-down that beatitude: “Blessed are you when they persecute you” as if it read: “Blessed are you when they uphold you as a privileged caste”! How often in our past history, or perhaps even today, have we made compromises with wicked and unjust politicians or businessmen and failed to defend the victims of an unjust system. We do this and have done this in the past simply to look comfortable with those who were oppressing the defenceless!

In a discourse of Pope Paul VI in September 1974 he asked: “What does the Church need today?” And he replied that in the present circumstances “the Church needs strong men” that is, people endowed with the virtue of fortitude. We need the virtue of fortitude not only in order to face the threats of Isis and other anti-Christian fundamentalists, but also to face the subtle threats of a secularized society. Today Christianity is a non-culture. With the excuse of not wanting to offend non-Christians, we are even denying our history and heritage, removing crosses from classrooms and refraining from building Christmas cribs in our schools. We need the courage to counter this mentality, then may we be able to show the world that we are happy that we have known Jesus Christ and have opted to follow him.

The Church was born on the cross. The new man was born on the cross. In a moment of distress and persecution, St Paul has described how this birth took place (2 Cor 4, 8-9): “We are in difficulties on all sides, but never cornered; we see no answer to our problems, but never despair”. Despair is the attitude of a person who has lost all hope; yet Jesus, on his way to his agony, encouraged his disciples telling them: “Trust in me: I have conquered the world”. Paul goes on: “We have been persecuted, but never deserted; knocked down, but never killed”. The prophets were convinced that they had to endure persecution, but nothing would suffocate the word that they were called to proclaim. The apostle continues with these words (vv. 10-11): “Always, wherever we may be, we carry with us in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus, too, may always be seen in our body. Indeed. while we are still alive we are consigned to our death every day, for the sake of Jesus,  so that in our mortal flesh the life of Jesus, too, may be openly shown”. In these words, St Paul has described very eloquently the “foolishness of the cross”.

We are on a pilgrimage. It is the pilgrimage of Jesus himself, who, in Luke’s words (9, 51), “resolutely took the road to Jerusalem”. But this pilgrimage does not end on Calvary. No. It ends in a beautiful garden, where we hear the sweet voice of the Risen Lord, who will call us by name as he did with Mary Magdalene. Let us undertake this path, and on the way let us sing a new song to the Lord. And our song will be: “Alleluia!”

Msgr. George Frendo O.P.