Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting Out Into The Deep
August 31, 2012
Last week, we considered Buffalo Bishop Richard Malone’s thoughts on martyrdom in the New Evangelization and we distinguished between what Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen used to call “red” and “white” martyrdom: red, the martyrdom of blood, and white, the martyrdom of suffering and rejection on behalf of the Gospel. Bishop Malone indicated that Catholics today must recover the courage of the martyrs in proclaiming and living our faith in the midst of a relativist culture that is becoming increasingly intolerant.
It’s a supremely obvious point that we have no greater example of the type of witness to which we’re called than Jesus Himself, Whose life featured both red and white martyrdom. Catholics are well aware of His bloody witness — we remember it every time we behold the crucifix and make the Sign of the Cross. But His white martyrdom may be even more instructive to us as we seek to heed His commands to come to Him, to follow Him and to proclaim the Gospel to every creature.
Jesus’ white martyrdom began soon after He was born, as He was called by Simeon a “sign to be contradicted” and was persecuted by Herod before the Word would even utter His first human words. It continued when His cousins tried to seize Him because they thought He was out of His mind, when He was vehemently opposed by the Scribes and Pharisees who accused Him of the capital sin of blasphemy, and when His fellow Nazarenes rose up to try to throw Him off a Nazarene promontory after hearing Him preach in their synagogue.
The most poignant instance of Jesus’ white martyrdom, however, happened in the scene the whole Church contemplated on Sunday. After having told the crowds in Capernaum that He was going to give them the greatest gift ever — Himself as their spiritual nourishment — Jesus had to endure seeing not just the crowds but His “disciples” abandon Him in great numbers, murmuring to themselves that His teaching was hard and unendurable. Jesus was so wounded that He turned to the Twelve and asked them if they, too, were going to leave Him.
He had labored already for quite some time to form a group of disciples around Him. He had preached. He had worked miracles to feed them. He had labored from dawn to dusk on various occasions curing one-by-one all the sick that had been brought to Him. And after the Bread of Life discourse, he was left basically with the Twelve — including His betrayer, as Jesus recognized for the first time on that occasion.
When the Good Shepherd who had promised to leave the 99 to go, find and save each lost sheep, saw the “99” abandoning Him, He conceivably could have gone after them to prevent them from leaving. He could have offered to multiply another five loaves and two fish to feed them. He could have walked on water and invited them, like He once invited Peter, to do the same. He could have put on another show of curing the blind, deaf, and lame. He could have offered to water down or change His teaching on the need to eat His Body and drink His Blood.
He didn’t. As much as it must have been killing Him to see them walk away, He knew that they had heard Him accurately and they just didn’t want to believe in Him and what He was saying. He was promising to give them the greatest gift the world has ever known, but they were rejecting that treasure.
The importance for each of us to contemplate Jesus’ white martyrdom in Capernaum was shown to me a couple of years ago in an unforgettable way.
I brought a group of American seminarians doing a summer course in Rome to meet Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former Archbishop of St. Louis and now Prefect of the Vatican’s Apostolic Signatura (Supreme Court). When Cardinal Burke began to take questions at the end of our session, one of the seminarians asked him if he had any advice for them as they were preparing to be ordained to preach the Gospel. The young man said that the cardinal had the reputation for being one of the most prophetic preachers in the United States, not ducking any of the controversial issues even when he had to suffer, and the seminarian wondered what lessons the cardinal had learned from these experiences that could guide them.
Cardinal Burke prefaced his answer by saying that we always have to preach the truth with charity and to strive to communicate to others that passing on the truth of Christ is one of the greatest acts of charity.
But then he got to the heart of his reply: He said he couldn’t imagine any preacher of the Word mounting the pulpit without having prayed long and hard about Jesus on the cross and about Jesus’ rejection in Capernaum after He had tried to indicate to them the new daily Manna that would sustain them in the desert of life far better than the first manna had sustained the Israelites. That is a meditation He returns to frequently, he said. We learn there the truth, he said, that sometimes, sadly, people reject the good. Sometimes people reject the Lord and the truth and love He came into the world to give. And sometimes those who are trying to pass on Jesus’ truth with charity will be the first to experience the pain of that rejection — and they have to be prepared for it.
The seminarian then asked, with humility and candor, what he should do if he is afraid to suffer rejection for preaching the difficult truths that many of the Catholics in his diocese might not want to hear.
“If someone who has been commissioned to preach the Gospel doesn’t feel that he can preach the whole truth of God that will set us free,” Cardinal Burke stated before taking a long pause. I anticipated he was going to conclude the sentence by saying something like, “He should think about another line of work.”
But after the delay, Cardinal Burke gave his apodosis, “Such a seminarian should pray long and hard that the Lord give him the grace to preach that truth with faith, charity and courage.”
That same advice is valid for all Catholics who have been commissioned by Christ through Baptism to preach the Gospel. It’s particularly timely as we prepare for the white martyrdom — and perhaps red — that will accompany the New Evangelization.