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Out of Exile

We have all had fantasies of wanting to get away from it all. Sometimes we look around at the state of the world and wonder what it would be like if we could pack up everything and move to a place where we would not have to struggle to raise our families as Christians, or have to struggle to act as Christians in a Christian society, or have to worry about the possibility of Christian persecution.

Just today I found a blog post by a Catholic who purported to offer fellow Catholics The Top 5 Places for Voluntary Exile:

Over the past few years, Catholics have seen a non-stop assault on traditional values. With the reversal of DOMA by the Supreme Court, the aggressively anti-Catholic liberal agenda will only become stronger. As Christians, it is our duty to bear witness and to stand up for our beliefs, but what if things get really bad—like secret catacombs, beheadings, burning at the stake, and thrown to the lions bad? What are the best places to hide away from the increasingly hostile secular culture? As a service to our readers, we present the top five places for faithful Catholics to spend a peaceful self-imposed exile!

In a nutshell, the five suggested locations are tiny Catholic enclaves, mostly in Europe, and that have retained populations that are over 90 percent Catholic. If you overlook little hiccups in the plan—such as the fact that all of these exotic locales survive precisely because they are too small for much notice by the wider world (which in turn means they will not be interested in absorbing a huge influx of Catholic expatriates fleeing persecution)—the post makes for an amusing read.

But once we finish daydreaming, it is time to return to real life. And the fact is that most of us must live precisely where we already are. Even if we could drop our lives and livelihoods to flee to imagined safe havens free from the “scourge” of anything opposing Catholicism, the question we would have to ask would be if that is actually the right thing to do.

Before we do that, though, let’s dispel a big myth: The myth that here in the United States Christians are living in a state of persecution. Frankly, this is baloney. Most of us wouldn’t know real persecution if we saw it on TV.

And we don’t know real persecution even when we do see it on TV. Because pampered Americans mainly ignore the stories that the media often does report of real persecution of Christians around the world. American Christians mainly deal right now with annoyances and inconveniences—in some cases, hardships. Elections don’t go our way; courts make rulings that worry and frighten us; schools want to teach our children ideas with which we disagree; the state hounds us for not going along to get along. I’m not saying these aren’t matters of legitimate concern, but let’s look at real persecution, shall we? You know, the type of persecution where the lives of people actually are at stake.

Some of the most famous cases of recent Christian persecution have been the result of fundamentalist Islamic terrorists bent on promoting their ideas of jihad. One example was the horrific massacre of nearly 60 people at a Catholic church in Iraq that began on the vigil of All Saints Day in 2010. By the time it was all over:

. . . at least 41 of the dead were hostages, including 2 priests, while the others included 12 policemen, 5 bystanders, and the gunmen. Another 78 people were wounded. Three priests, Fathers Saad Abdallah Tha’ir, Waseem Tabeeh and Raphael Qatin, were at first reported killed, but Father Qatin, although seriously wounded, later recovered in a Baghdad hospital.

A year later, in Nigeria, a Muslim sect called the Boko Haram claimed responsibility for “a series of bombings [that] occurred on Christmas Day [at] church services in northern Nigeria. . . . There were bomb blasts and shootings at churches in Madalla, Jos, Gadaka, and Damaturu. A total of 41 people are reported dead.”

Meanwhile, some Americans Catholics consider themselves “persecuted” when they have trouble getting along with their pastor:

With the nearest Catholic church 32 miles and a flight or ferry ride away on the mainland, in Charlevoix, [Michigan], upset parishioners have limited options. Some have joined the “Catholic corner” at the nondenominational Christian church. Others, like [Jeanne] Gillespie [a parishioner], soldier on at Holy Cross, unwilling to deny herself the Eucharist, but also unflinching in her opinion that [Fr. Joseph] Blasko must go.

She and other parishioners say Blasko, who arrived at Holy Cross in July 2011, has anger issues and a personality and pastoral approach incompatible with their island community that takes pride in its independence and isolation.

Fr. Pat Cawley, pastor at Holy Cross for 15 years before Blasko, told NCR [the National Catholic Reporter] that “[Blasko] just never bothered to understand the people. And on the island, you can’t do that.”

If a Catholic can’t even live in peace on an island in the middle of Lake Michigan and deal with a personality conflict with the pastor, how well do you think he would deal with mobs of angry militants seeking to lynch anyone confessing Christ crucified?

Christians are not called to chase after martyrdom. In fact, martyrs like St. Thomas More pulled out every last trick that could be found so as to avoid martyrdom. But neither do they run away from martyrdom once it is impossible to avoid it any longer. In St. Thomas’s case, he retired from public life, yes, but he did not flee England. And he willingly accepted the necessary hardships that living conscientiously entailed—such as losing influence, position, and wealth. Had King Henry VIII been satisfied with St. Thomas’s silence on the matter of Henry’s marriage, St. Thomas likely would have been content to live out his life in straitened circumstances. 

But those straitened circumstances helped to prepare St. Thomas for his eventual martyrdom. As another saint, Therese of Lisieux, observed, “Before dying by the sword, let us die by means of pin-pricks.” It is in bearing the pin-pricks that we are made capable of accepting the sword. St. Therese also commented that “The hidden martyrdom, known but to God . . . martyrdom without honor, without triumph—that is love pushed to heroism.”

If you are seriously worried about persecution in the United States, the answer is not to daydream about fleeing persecution that has not yet come. One answer might be to, as country star Tim McGraw sings, “live like you were dying.” Since it is a secular song, it is unsurprising that some of the pursuits recommended are self-indulgent whims that could in fact hasten death. Other recommendations on the list are more significant, and include loving friends and family, forgiving others, repenting of misdeeds, and reconnecting with God.

But it is also unsurprising that unrealistic daydreams of hiding away in a Catholic compound so that you can live in the manner to which you have become accustomed—or in a manner to which you want to become accustomed—did not make the list.

We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us (Rom. 5:3–5).


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