Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting Out Into The Deep
August 24, 2012
On August 10, Bishop Richard Malone was installed as the new shepherd of the Diocese of Buffalo.
I’ve known Bishop Malone for more than 20 years, from the time he was chaplain to the Harvard-Radcliffe Catholic Student Center when I was an undergraduate and daily Massgoer. Throughout his priesthood and his time as auxiliary bishop of Boston and Bishop of Portland, Maine, he has become one of the true experts in the Church in the United States on Catholic education, catechesis and evangelization.
That experience is one of the reasons why his installation homily two weeks ago at Buffalo’s St. Joseph’s Cathedral has garnered so much attention.
Normally, installation homilies allow the newly-arrived bishop a chance to chart out his Christian apostolic vision, to mention themes important to him and the Church, and to sketch in broad outline some pastoral priorities.
Bishop Malone used the occasion to speak about martyrdom — specifically martyrdom in the New Evangelization.
He introduced the theme with a little bit of humor. August 10 is the liturgical feast of St. Lawrence, the third-century deacon whose martyrdom in Rome under the Emperor Valerian is one of the most famous in hagiography. Being burned to death on a red-hot gridiron, he turned to his executioners and said, “Assum est. Versa et manduca,” “This side’s well-done. Turn me over and have a bite.” Bishop Malone used the line to comment, “Getting grilled is not an unknown experience for bishops these days!”
The message of the martyrdom of St. Lawrence, however, is one, he said, “for me and for all of us.” He described that the Greek word martyr translates as “witness” and emphasized that the martyr is the greatest Christian witness of all. The martyr is one “whose discipleship is so authentic, so deep, so uncompromising, so credible that she or he is ready and willing, with God’s grace, to give all, surrender all, to Christ and the truth He has revealed, and to do so in the face of fear, loss, scorn, rejection, suffering, even death. It is total self-giving in response to Christ’s love poured out for us from the cross.”
Like with St. Lawrence, sometimes “the witness’ surrender rises to a dramatic climax, like death on a grill,” Bishop Malone continued. But while only some of us are called to a red martyrdom, all of us are called to a white martyrdom. “For most of us,” he said, “our witness is a matter of persevering commitment to Christ and the Gospel, a daily dying to self, again and again, in large things and small. And this can be attempted in a wholesome, healthy and life-giving way only with profound hope, and even, paradoxically, real joy.”
This type of white martyrdom is something to which Jesus calls every disciple, the bishop stressed. Commenting on the words of Jesus in the Gospel of St. Lawrence’s feast day, “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains just a grain of wheat, but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (Jn 12:24), Bishop Malone said, “This startling yet foundational teaching of Jesus is relevant not only for our own personal growth in holiness, … [but] has profound meaning for our mission in this world,” for our fulfilling the New Evangelization.
Christians must be willing to die to themselves, to die to their egos, to die to their excessive desire for human respect if they’re ever going to be able to bear the Gospel to others.
“We need the martyrs’ conviction, courage, tenacity, selflessness and hope,” Bishop Malone declared, “to stand up in our increasingly relativistic society in defense of [the] truths and values so threatened in our time,” and help in the “transformation of individuals in Christ and the transformation of our increasingly secular culture into a civilization of love and a culture of life, respectful of human life from conception to natural death and at every moment in between; of marriage as the union of one man and one woman, open to new life; protective of religious liberty and conscience rights; compassionate toward the poor and toward immigrants, and so much more.”
Christians today need guts. Catholics need guts. To be faithful to Christ means that in some way we’re going to suffer.
For some it may mean suffer the jibes of family, friends, colleagues, fellow students, and opinion-makers who think we’re hopelessly backward for believing in Christ.
For others it may mean suffering more than taunts, like teens who forsake employment rather than work shifts that would force them to miss Sunday Mass, pharmacists who lose their jobs for not filling immoral prescriptions, or politicians who endanger their electability by standing up for the truth when the truth is unpopular.
And for some it may mean imprisonment or death on account of the faith, like is happening today in India, China, Vietnam and several Muslim countries where communist, Hindu or Muslim fundamentalists are able to harass, persecute, rape, torture and kill Christians with impunity. Two weeks ago, I hosted a missionary priest from southern India who told me of the story of one of his priest colleagues who last year was brutally murdered by Hindu fundamentalists just for founding a Catholic school to educate the “untouchables.”
To be a Catholic missionary, a new evangelizer, today requires bravery. One of the reasons why there’s a need for a New Evangelization is because in many places in the West, Christians have become soft. Rather than re-evangelizing culture, the mushy, pusillanimous elements of our consumerist, materialist, hedonistic culture have to a large degree “de-evangelized” us, such that churches are empty when there’s an inch of snow on the ground while supermarkets and malls are packed. We’ve padded our pews and kneelers, but fewer are using them to pray.
That’s why, in order to become agents of the rebuilding rather than the decline of the Church today, we need to go “back to the martyrs.” That’s the summons Bishop Malone was giving to the Church of Buffalo, which has begun to echo throughout the country. We have to become “the grain that falls to the earth and dies if we are to give credible witness to Christ, to the truth.”
Cowardice, softness, and mediocrity only lead to apostolic sterility and ecclesial and culture decline. On the other hand, if we, like Christ and the martyrs, are willing to suffer and die to ourselves for the Lord and for the Gospel, then we will be able to bear great fruit.
The blood of the martyrs, Tertullian said 1,800 years ago with words that are perennially valid, is the seed of the Church.
Therefore, Bishop Malone reminded us in his important inaugural homily, it’s the perspiration, pluck and if required the plasma of true Christian witnesses today that will be the seed for the harvest of the New Evangelization tomorrow.