Western Christians should learn from the Sri Lanka martyrs

Clergy and police view the bomb damage at St Sebastian’s in Negombo, Sri Lanka (CNS)

What have we sacrificed for the faith lately? What have we suffered for the suffering God?

“He who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me,” but “he who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38-9).

By that stark measure of discipleship, Sri Lanka’s slaughtered Christians have amply proved themselves. On Sunday, they filled their churches in Colombo to greet the Risen Jesus only to fall victim to Islamist savagery. The Christians of Sri Lanka lost their lives for the sake of the Lord – simply, beautifully, radically – and even now their wounds are glorified like his.

The question the Sri Lanka massacre, and others like it in places such as Egypt, Nigeria and Iraq, pose to Christians in the West is: what have we sacrificed for the faith lately? What have we suffered for the suffering God?

A friend of mine likes to say that “there are no Styrofoam crosses”. If you’re handed a real cross, you will recognise it by the heavy weight, by the pieces of wood that splinter off and prick your hands as you try to carry it.

The Bible and the saints assure us that any such cross, borne gladly, can be a source of sanctification: the sudden and serious bout of illness, the demands of caring for parents in senescence, the inevitable sacrifices that come with raising children.

We Christians in the developed world must wonder, however, if there are collective crosses that we have so far shirked, especially those of us well placed to proclaim Christ crucified in our re-paganised societies. Islamist violence stalks Western homelands, to be sure, but our insecurity isn’t systematic. We don’t reside in “ungoverned spaces” like our brethren across swathes of Africa do. Nor in lands where the security forces are indifferent to threats to our physical security (Egypt, for example) or too incompetent to fend them off (Sri Lanka, apparently).

Even so, as Matthew Schmitz has written in these pages, the Christian faithful face persecution in Western democracies. It targets our minds and consciences instead of our bodies, the kind of persecution that our Lord said we should most fear (Matthew 10:28).

Islamic marauders, after all, are an old, open enemy. More insidious is the persecutor who welcomes Catholicism – provided it’s the bashful, mumbling faith of a Cardinal Joseph Tobin. Pressed recently by a Today programme presenter to explain the Church’s position on human sexuality, the cardinal shied away and, more than that, he effectively dismissed the Catechism and thus the biblical, patristic and philosophical heritage on which that magnificent document rests.

“How can you welcome people that you call ‘intrinsically disordered?’” the interviewer asked.

“Well, I don’t call them ‘intrinsically disordered,’” Tobin answered.

Now, here was the cardinal’s opening to add: “And nor does the Catechism of the Catholic Church!” He could have gone on to explain the natural law basis of the Church’s teaching. How often does a Today audience get to hear a prince of the Church propound the idea, pre-dating Christianity, that morality is written into human nature and therefore can be discerned by human reason? Talk about an apostolic opportunity.

Here’s what the cardinal actually said: “It’s very unfortunate language. Let’s hope that eventually that language is a little less hurtful.”

Much, much less was being asked of the Cardinal Archbishop of Newark than is daily asked of Christians in the Sri Lankas of the world. If he gave her the “wrong” answer, the Today interviewer wouldn’t have beheaded the cardinal or dispatched a suicide bomber to his chancery. The worst that could have befallen him for proclaiming the Church’s moral absolutes were a bit of awkwardness and the scorn of those who scorn the Church anyway.

Catholics prepared to forgive the cardinal might wonder: how far is the distance from Tobin’s brand of Christianity to the disembodied, “symbolic” Christianity of Serene Jones, the Union Theological Seminary president who recently told the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof that she doesn’t believe in bodily resurrection, the virgin birth and hell. Or how far is the distance from Newark to Colombo’s simple, bloodstained faith?

Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post, a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald and author of the memoir From Fire, by Water (Ignatius Press)