By Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas
One in a series
Monday, Oct. 15, 2012
VATICAN CITY — The synod fathers returned after a welcome free day. Interventions continue. Bishops speak from their experience and the realities in their dioceses. The most moving comments for me come from bishops serving in the persecuted church, where suffering for the faith exists. The interventions spoke both of the blood of martyrs as the seed for the growth of the faith and the need to guarantee the right of religious liberty and freedom of conscience, the ability to express one’s faith publicly without fear of retribution.
Today, again, a number of bishops spoke of suffering that strengthened faith in their countries.
Cardinal Joseph Bozanic, the archbishop of Zagreb, Croatia, spoke of the priests, religious, and above all the laity in his country who gave their lives for Christ. Martyrs give the most striking witness to the faith and move others to embrace Christ. While we read of the early martyrs and their heroism, we become inspired most by those who witness Christ by the shedding of their blood in our times. This happens in too many places today.
Bishop Virgil Bercea of Romania spoke of the 12 bishops and many Catholics who died for their faith in his country, but the church has been transformed by their suffering. These martyrs and evangelizers became “icons” calling the country to a renewed faith.
Bishop Olivier Schmitthaeusler of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, recalled the destruction of innocent human life under the cruel and violent Khmer Rouge regime. Out of this suffering the church is taking root in Cambodia.
In July, I visited Phnom Penh for Catholic Relief Services. We visited the killing fields and stood stunned by the atrocities that happened in this country. We stood in silence before the tower of skulls of men, women, and children slaughtered by those with little regard for the dignity of human life.
Yet in the wake of such senseless, brutal violence, our visit with Bishop Olivier introduced us to a church in Cambodia coming to life after the massacre of people. Bishop Olivier has established a college in the rural area to educate a new generation of young people, both Christian and those of other faiths. They can study English, agriculture, tourism and IT that will help them in the future. He is providing a path to self-sufficiency for the young and opening them to the interest and concern of the church.
We saw the church in Phnom Penh caring for the elderly, children with disabilities, those living on the margins, a caring church.
In his intervention, Bishop Olivier spoke of the laity as the new evangelizers. He called for a simple church attentive to the poor and the uneducated, a welcoming church that accepts the different, those others reject. He reminded us that we need to be a church that prays. “I look at Him and He looks at me.” Finally we need to be a joyful church. Our visit to Phnom Penh introduced me to a simple, welcoming, praying and joyful church that has come alive out of a suffering people.
Several interventions today spoke of the restrictions to religious liberty that exist in too many places. Some Christians today live in fear for their lives in practicing their faith. Inviting others to encounter Jesus Christ is forbidden.
A bishop from Africa spoke of the dangers of fundamentalist religious groups who make the practice of the Christian faith difficult, if not impossible. This was affirmed by interventions from Pakistan and Syria. The church lives confined and imprisoned, restricted and endangered.
Recently Bishop George Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, and I visited Baghdad, Iraq, hosted by Bishop Shlemon Warduni, a Chaldean bishop also present at this synod. We stood in the center of the bombed Church of Our Lady of Deliverance, the Syriac Catholic Church in the heart of Baghdad We saw on the walls bloody hand marks, on the ceiling the impression of an automatic weapon indented there by a bomb the terrorist used to blow himself up while holding his weapon. We saw the baptistery where many innocent Christians lost their lives when a terrorist broke in and blew himself up, killing all who were hiding there.
Such acts of terrorism terrify. They lead to Christian families fleeing to safeguard their lives and that of their families.
Recently the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops held a symposium in September at Catholic University in Washington on the topic of religious liberty. It raised the importance of this issue in our world today. It emphasized the need for increased dialogue between religions so that we might all live in harmony with respect for one another and the right to practice one’s religious freedom. The symposium called upon governments to protect and defend the right of religious liberty.
The topic is sensitive and complex, yet important to address in discussing the new evangelization. We need to value and respect all religions. We need to expect that other religions show reciprocal respect for the Christian faith. We need to acknowledge the right of people to change their faith without fear of retribution.
Bishop Joseph Absi of Syria spoke of some young Muslims who became Christian because they found in the Christian faith a joy and freedom they treasured. They met a God known as Father who loved them unconditionally. Such conversions should not be seen as a rejection of one’s previous faith for which the person should be punished or rejected.
Religious liberty was one of the compelling messages of Vatican II expressed in Dignitatis Humanae. Fifty years hence in places all around the world people of faith experience suffering, even death, for practicing their faith. Fifty years hence people’s right of religious freedom is still threatened by governments and even people of faith. Clearly the church must continue its forthright advocacy as well as respectful and determined dialogue on behalf of religious liberty, a fundamental human right. There is an urgent need to intensify interreligous dialogue leading to reciprocal respect for all religions and an end to violence between faiths.
The challenges and opportunities to realize the new evangelization are varied and profound as has been described vividly these days by the synod fathers in their interventions. Now it is incumbent on the synod fathers to begin exploring ways to address the challenges with concrete strategies. As courage and creativity are demanded to address the challenges to religious liberty, as was discussed today, so courage and creativity will be necessary if we will realize a new evangelization. Business as usual will result in a new evangelization in name only but not in a renewal of faith that inspires others to encounter Jesus Christ.
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Bishop Kicanas, of Tucson, Ariz., is chairman of the board of Catholic Relief Services and is a former vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Also a former chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Communications Committee, he is blogging from the world Synod of Bishops this month by special arrangement with Catholic News Service. He was elected an alternate delegate to the synod by the U.S. bishops and became a full delegate when Cardinal Francis E. George was unable to attend.