I will probably die in my bed.
My successor will probably die in prison.
The bishop who comes after me will probably be martyred.
Not my words! The words of the Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, speaking to a group of priests in 2010.
Today, we celebrate the Apostles Peter and Paul, martyred for following Jesus. But not only martyred – both Peter and Paul were also imprisoned on several occasions. We’ve just heard about St Peter’s miraculous release from prison, and St Paul reflecting on how he had stood firm through many trials – trials which would have included imprisonment. Our own patron Saint, Philip Evans, also spent more than half a year in gaol before he was finally executed.
In our own age, many Catholics have been imprisoned for what they believe.
The last Archbishop of Shanghai spent 20 years in prison as a priest and spent much of his life as a bishop under house arrest, because in China, bishops have no freedom unless they agree to come under the official Government branch of the Church.
A few months ago, three Catholic priests were kidnapped in the Crimea, though they were later released safely.
In the year 2000, Muslim activists in the Philippines kidnapped 29 Catholics from two schools in Basilan province. Two hostages, both teachers, were executed by their captors, and four others, including a priest, died during the rescue operation.
In the same year, 16 Filipinos, including 5 children, were arrested in Saudi Arabia when they were caught holding a Bible study group in a private apartment.
It is not only Catholics who are being attacked. Last September, an attack on an Anglican church in Peshawar, Pakistan, left at least 85 people dead. Pope Francis responded the same week in his Wednesday audience, in these words:
“So many Christians in the world are suffering,” the pope said. “Am I indifferent to that, or does it affect me like it’s a member of the family?”
“Does it touch my heart, or doesn’t it really affect me, [to know that] so many brothers and sisters in the family are giving their lives for Jesus Christ?”
“How many of you pray for Christians who are persecuted?” the pope asked. “Ask yourselves, do I pray for that brother or sister who’s in difficulty for confessing their faith?”
So Pope Francis is calling us to prayer for our persecuted brothers and sisters – but also to examine our own values.
Why is going to Mass so important that Catholics in Pakistan and Nigeria will risk getting blown up every Sunday?
Why is studying the Bible or going to a prayer meeting so important that Christians in Saudi Arabia risk arrest every time they do it?
Why is being loyal to the successor of Peter so important that Catholic leaders in China and the Crimea today, as in Wales at the time of St Philip Evans, risk imprisonment rather than agree to ignore the Pope’s leadership?
The answers to these questions come not from my words in this pulpit, but from the seed of faith which Our Heavenly Father plants in your hearts. In today’s Gospel, He planted in St Peter’s heart the knowledge that Jesus was the Son of the Living God. If you are not certain, cry out to your Heavenly Father: “Remove my doubt! Increase my faith!”
If you know that the things we do as Church are important, but have not given them the priority they deserve, this is an invitation to make a new beginning! Come to weekday Mass once a week! Come to our Thursday night activities when they begin in September. If you don’t yet come to Mass every weekend, start putting the Lord first on the Lord’s day. Our Father in heaven will be delighted!
I have not yet told you accurately or fully what Cardinal George of Chicago actually said. Here are his exact words:
I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.
The Cardinal was deliberately being dramatic to make a point. We don’t have to let it get that bad – but if we do nothing, the politicians who oppose religious values will win ground and push us into a corner. We can choose, instead, to begin the rebuilding today, on the firm foundations of St Peter the Rock, and St Paul, teacher of the nations.
Before I finish, a word to the children at Mass this morning – don’t be afraid! Yes, I’ve talked about some scary things which happen to people who go to church in other parts of the world. In Wales, we are safe. Our churches in Wales are not being bombed, and we will not be arrested for saying we want to follow Pope Francis. But it’s important that we stand up for the things we believe in. Jesus promises that he will give his friends special strength when they stand up and do the right thing. Some people in Britain want us to keep our Catholic ideas inside our churches. We need to tell other people that we are Catholics and want what we believe to be respected at school and at work too!