by His Eminence Cardinal Mauro Piacenza
HE Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, President of Aid to the Church in Need International welcomed delegates from across the world to the International Religious Freedom Conference 2014 in Malta 12 - 13 May last. The conference theme was Can Christianity survive Persecution? and Africa and was preceded by High Mass in St. John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta and a Procession of Witness through the city - Malta's capital. The following is the opening speech of His Eminence.
The question posed, "Can Christianity survive the persecution?" is an extremely challenging and – in some respects and in light of certain particular situations – one might even say a prophetic one. For indeed we know well how in not a few regions of the world, even not so far away from us, there is in progress a veritable and outright persecution, almost even a "systematic purging" of Christians – in the face of the massive and deafening silence of the major world media – a persecution which, where it has not already assumed the overtones of violence, is no less aggressive from the ideological point of view in the systematic attempt that is being made in the centres of culture and legislation, to delegitimise the very "Christian reality", along with its inclusive claims and consequent historical and social traditions.
I think it would be difficult to give a simple, all-embracing answer to the question. If by "Christianity" we mean a Christian social and cultural context within which our human laws and common social life are drawn from the faith, then the answer might well be in the negative. It seems as though Christianity, as the social and public expression of the Christian faith, will be scarcely able to survive the persecution, which is striving precisely to eliminate the "Christian reality" from the public scene and which, in a strategy conducted in the shadows, rather than unleashing a direct attack on Christianity, is working in every way to change the mentality of men, of peoples and of the legislators.
On the other hand, the "Christian reality" in itself – Christianity as the encounter with the Event and the Person of Jesus Christ himself – not only cannot be eliminated by any persecution but, as we well know from history, is itself mysteriously strengthened, toughened in its very deepest heart, precisely by persecution.
"The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians", says Tertullian (Apologeticus, 50; CCC n.852), and from this perspective Christianity has journeyed for 2000 years through history, constantly in dialogue with every ruling power and striving to preserve the supreme – and non-negotiable – value of religious freedom. In this sense we could say that Christianity has an inherently martyrological structure, whose roots go down deeply into the very historic-salvific event of the Crucifixion and death of Jesus. At the beginning of the Christian life, we might say – paraphrasing the opening words of Deus Caritas est by Pope Benedict XVI – is the encounter with Christ, who is at the same time and always the Crucified and Risen Lord.
The restorative dimension of the Christ-Event is the hermeneutical key to the martyrological structure of Christianity!
In this context, I would like to draw a further two considerations to our common attention.
The first of these concerns the roots of religious freedom. I do not think one can in any sense deny that this is also a mature fruit of Christianity. This "strange faith" which made its entry into history in a polytheistic and "vertical" (authoritarian) cultural context – which had gone so far as to identify the godhead with the ruling civil power – walked for centuries along the "narrow way" of persecution first of all, and then of history, with that passion for man and for freedom that is typical of one who is aware of the implications of the Incarnation, of one who understands the supreme value of the fact that God has chosen to assume a fully human nature: then definitively participating in history.
The progressive penetration of our culture by Christianity, and the fruitful and constructive dialogue between reason and faith, founded in the very definition of St John: "the Logos was made flesh" have led over the course of time to the affirmation of religious freedom. This must be understood, not as a recognition of a possible "relativisation of truth" with respect to the various traditions of mankind, but above all as the impossibility on the part of the ruling power to tell people what they can and should think. Religious freedom does not legitimise the contemporary "supermarket" approach to faith or spirituality, but places a limit on power. It opposes the limitations of personal (i.e. relational) conscience against any attempt, whether explicit or hidden, at undue interference.
From this perspective there likewise arise innumerable ways of exploring more deeply how to correctly interpret what is meant today by the secular character of the state – which not infrequently degenerates into mere anti-Christian secularism.
And so we arrive at the second consideration, namely the direct emanation of the fruitful relationship between Logos and faith – between reason and faith – which is no less a structural dimension of Christianity than the dimension of martyrdom. I maintain that a "Christianity" – understood as a legitimate translation of the Christian faith into social and historical expressions – can likewise have a future, in proportion to the truth with which we live our adherence to Christ.
Christianity, starting from the fact of the Incarnation of the Logos, is never foreign to man; indeed, the answers it offers correspond to the very "structure" of the human heart. In every circumstance, in every historical age, even in the time of persecution, it is always essential to recall that the "Christian reality" is not an ideology that clashes with other ideologies, nor a morality that can be substituted by other moralities.
Christianity is the definitive response of God to the irrepressible demands of the human heart, of that profound and irrepressible dimension that man experiences within the fertile solitude of his conscience and within the truth of his very being.
For this reason, the primary necessity is not to defend the Christian structures or laws (though that too!), but to have the farsightedness to work, here and now, to "revive the human heart" whose desire for the infinite is too often suffocated beneath a thousand inadequate responses or stifled by an infinite number of objections and reductive arguments. It seems to me that this is the potential prospect for the new evangelisation, if we do not want this to remain at the level of a popularly repeated slogan and no more than that.
Just as religious freedom is a mature fruit of Christianity, understood as affection and respect for the human conscience and as a limitation on the right of temporal authority to dictate in this sphere, so too the survival of Christianity, as the historical and social dimension of Christianity, has its own condition of existence in the evidence of the correspondence of Christ to the human heart.
In answer to our starting question: "Can Christianity survive the persecution?" I therefore reply unhesitatingly: "Yes!" in the certainty of the supernatural – that is to say divine – nature of the Christian reality and in the assurance, that has come down to us through 20 centuries of history, that “non praevalebunt”. However, in order for this answer to be true, today and always, there is nonetheless a condition – a twofold one – and I am happy to remind you of it, recalling the great Chesterton: that men do not forget themselves (their own dimension of infinite searching for meaning), and that the Church may never be ashamed of Christ!
In this sense the immense hard work of ACN and its continued commitment to the support of the Church's mission, religious freedom, priestly formation and the practical apostolate, deserves the highest praise. For in this it is indeed possible to constantly recognise the great breadth of the Church, which is always one and at the same time always catholic and which, wherever she lives and works, is always the one Body of Christ, animated by the one Spirit and sustained by the one Faith.
The very ancient and venerable history of the Church is the guarantee of stability and fidelity to the unbroken apostolic tradition. Let us entrust everything into the hands of the Mother of Jesus, Mother of the Church and our own Mother!