ASCENSION OF THE LORD - SUNDAY AFTER -
"They shall put you out of the synagogues, you, the hour cometh when whoever kills you will deem he doth a service to God."
The last Sunday I spoke to you, my brethren, I endeavored to put before you the peculiar mode which Jesus Christ took to establish upon earth, that empire of His Church which equals space in its extension, and conquers time by its imperishable stability. We saw in the gospel of that day, how He taught the world, not as men teach it – but by establishing a living body of teachers, speaking everywhere with one voice, and bound together by their unbroken union with the successor of St. Peter, the vicar of Christ. How He took His apostles, not from the thinkers of the world, but from the workers, in order that having a special sympathy with the class from which they sprang, a class that must always constitute the great bulk of the human race, they might go with God’s truth upon their lips, and God’s sacraments in their hands amongst the hard-handed toilers of the world, might stand beside them and win their weary hearts to look up from the furrow in which they dug, and the fields to which their brows were bent, to the heaven that stretches above them, behind which, God the Almighty Father looks down upon their toil and blesses it, and where Jesus Christ Who loved them even unto death sits enthroned in heaven’s glory at God’s right hand. We saw, too, how the living Church follows them from their work to the abodes of their poverty and blessed them, how it opens to them the riches of God, and pours them, in fullest measure, into the bosom of the people; and how all men, but especially the poor, must look to the Church of God for the only real consolation that this world can afford. And, in reviewing all this, we had occasion to dwell particularly on the contrast which our Blessed Lord presents to all others who, before His time, or since, have set themselves up as teachers of men.
To-day, my brethren, the Gospel which I have read for you carries us still further, in the same direction.
When other teachers sought to impress their opinions, and their doctrines upon men, they proceeded thus: they set out by declaring that these opinions and these doctrines would lead to wealth, and honor, and the esteem of men, and all manner of temporal prosperity. Not so, emphatically I say it, not so, did Jesus Christ. My brethren, as a mere historical fact it is the most marvellous thing that history has recorded, that Jesus Christ who aimed at subjecting to His authority, not the people of this nation or of that, not the men of this age or that, but the men of every nation and of all times, that He Who aimed at this, and Who has succeeded in effecting His purpose, had nothing to promise to His followers upon earth, but this, sufferings, persecution, death. “If any man will be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.” And here in this day’s Gospel we have from his own sacred lips the prophetic declaration that those who follow him most faithfully, will have as their peculiar mark, their special crown, the hatred of the world. Ah! Surely, my brethren, there must be something higher, something nobler, something that appeals more strongly even to weak human nature than any prize the world can offer. Yes, there is something, and it is, the peace of God, the friendship of Jesus Christ.
But seeing that our Lord has uttered this prophecy, is it any wonder that the Church of God should be persecuted, since persecution is her crown? Need it scandalize any one that scenes should be permitted such as even now are saddening the hearts that love the Church, and long for the justice of God? If men, everywhere, through lands that owe their civilization to the Church; that in olden days sate at her feet, as at the feet of a mother, and learned there the lessons that made them great, and their history glorious; if men, with such a past behind them, have banded together to strike at the very heart of their mother, if they have lifted their impious hands against the august person of the Vicar of Jesus Christ, is there in all this, I ask, any reason why we Catholics should hang our heads in shame or in dismay, when long, long ago our Lord Himself prophetically told us that such things should be? No; never is the Church more surely the Church of Christ than when she is sorely stricken, even as He Himself was stricken once; and never is Christ’s Vicar more easily recognized as the representative of Him, than when comes before the world crowned with a crown of thorns, like that which Christ, his Master, bore upon His bleeding brow.
Nor do I think that there is any country under heaven, to the heart of which this passage of the Gospel will strike deeper home, than this land of ours, that can kneel at the feet of God, and offer to Him the chalice of a persecution more intense and more protracted than has ever yet been suffered by a Christian land. Do you want to know the history of Ireland? Well, Jesus Christ Himself has prophetically told it in this passage of the Gospel; “They will put you out of their synagogues; yea, the hour cometh that whosoever killeth you will think that he doth a service to God.” There is Ireland’s history.
Go into other lands which the world deems more favored; you will hear the ring of a thousand hammers, you will see the smoke of a thousand factories, you will witness on every side tokens of unbounded and ever-increasing wealth, you will see a free people using their freedom in the service of the world – aye, and of the flesh and the devil. Come into Ireland; well, you will find a people who have but just awakened from a sleep of slavery like the sleep of death. Their hands have felt the chain so long that its very memory seems to bind them still. You will find a land whose glory is in the graves of those who died for the faith they handed down to us. You will come across ruins rich with memories of a race that knew how to die for God. You will come upon lonely mountain passes and hidden glens, of which tradition tells, that there a persecuted people fled with their priests, and left their houses to burn, and their lands to pass to alien hands, and carried into the wilderness their holy faith, and the altar of their God. Yes; the time came, as Jesus said it would, when the men who slew them deemed that they did a service to God. “They shall put you out.” Yes; that, too, has Ireland seen – that, too, has suffered. In her history there was a chapter of death, and to that was added a chapter of exile.
The Irish emigrant turned with tear-dimmed eye and aching heart from the homestead of his fathers; and then God gave to these poor outcast Irish exiles, whom tyranny first smote and then despised, a mission like the mission of the Apostles of Christ. They went’ they turned their back for ever to the land that held their fathers’ graves; they sailed towards the sunset, away from the grasp oif tyranny and the insolence of oppression, but they bore with them the Cross of Christ, and, spreading in their thousands, through the solitudes of an unpeopled land, they built an another hemisphere the altar of their God. And to-day, beyond the western wave, is rising – nay, has risen – in a new land, and on a free soil, a new, free Ireland. And it has been given to these Irish exiles to bear in their generous hands, and in their faithful hearts, the destiny of the American Church.
And at home – what has persecution done? Just this. It has graven deeper on the nation’s heart the lessons of the Gospel of Christ. It has done just this. As it sent another Ireland to raise beyond the western wave the banner of the Cross, as it has sent an Irish race to write upon the virgin soil of anew world another glorious chapter in the long history of the Church of God, so it has done more than this – it has peopled heaven with Irish martyrs and with Irish saints. It has sent an Irish race beyond the world, beyond the stars, to sit about the feet of God, to look down lovingly upon the land where they bore the Cross and won the crown, and to pour forth their prayers that God may keep the Holy Catholic Faith fast-rooted in the Irish heart. And, thank God, their prayers have been heard. Ireland may have had to stand aside and let the prizes of the world go by, but Ireland has still one jewel shining in her crown, that makes it, crown of thorns though it be, the noblest crown that God and history have ever bound about a nation’s brow – the jewel of unshaken fidelity to the Church of God.
Ah, poor Ireland! Man has dealt hardly with you; history has examined you, and found little to record but tears and blood; but God has dealt with you will – angels have gathered up your blood and your tears, and have offered them to heaven; your history has been written, not in books that perish, but in the eternal memory of God Himself.
To me, my brethren, this sometimes happens. I take up the English newspaper, the Times, and it brings the busy world before me at a glance. Every interest that the world prizes has its record there. The business of men, and their politics, and their pleasures, and their crimes – you may read about them all. The page is thickly sown with names that men call great – kings, prices, statesmen, orators, all have their place in this wonderful record, which every day brings forth afresh, of the greatness of the English nation and the English race. And there, too, I read many a thing that makes sad the heart of a Catholic, and many a thing that makes blood boil in Irish veins. And then, with this picture of England before me, I am summoned to attend a sick call. Ah! Then I pass into what might seem another world. A cabin by the wayside, with squalid walls, where poverty struggled to make itself a home – and there, summoned from the almost thankless labor of a life-time, an Irish peasant has lain down to die. He has never heard even the names of those whom men call famous; poets may have sung, statesmen ruled, parties had their varying fortune, but of all this he knows absolutely nothing. Judged by any of the world’s standards, his life has been an utter failure. He never cultivated his mind – how could he? = from early morning to the quiet night, all his life long, he had to earn his bread by the seat of his brow. He has amassed no wealth – how could he? = scarcely could he keep body and soul together by the scanty pittance which his toil obtained. Bring the world of the newspaper to look at him, as he lies dying, and that world will say that, measured by any standard with which it is acquainted, his life has been a failure. A failure! – has it? – let us see. He knew little about kings, but he was a Catholic, and he knew Jesus Christ; he knew little about the world’s doings, but he was familiar with the Church of God; he had none of the world’s riches, but the Church had poured out upon his life the riches of the sacrament, and the priceless treasure of God’s friendship and God’s love. The Church had done for him the special and the most sacred work which Jesus had given it to do – it had preached the Gospel to the poor; and he was poor; and he had always snatched an interval from his toil to go the tribunal of confession; and he hd felt it the joy of his life to kneel before the altar and receive into his heart the Christ Who loved him unto death. He bore the cross of his poverty because he knew that it was the first, and the life-long cross which Jesus selected for Himself. And now he has come to die, and the Church has sent her priest, and has placed in his hands Jesus Christ Himself, to rest n his fainting heart, and teach it, as none but He could teach it, how to die.
Ah! My brethren, they may talk about success, they may talk about temporal prosperity, they may talk about political freedom, they may talk about the thousand things that make men great and nations glorious, but I, standing by a deathbed such as that, feel in my heart of hearts that there is no blessing which even God could bestow upon a land that can compare for a moment with the sacred faith, that makes such deathbeds common in the experience of an Irish priest.