The surreal atmosphere of the present “crisis of fear” which is being relentlessly exploited by the media and its political allies brings into sharp focus the courageous reply of St. Peter and the apostles before the Sanhedrin as recorded in chapters 4 and 5 of Acts of the Apostles. “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God you must judge… We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 4:19; 5:29) Christians now find themselves in a similar situation with the sudden closing of churches by secular authorities, thus preventing us from fulfilling the divinely mandated obligation to worship God as a community.
This is no small matter because one’s duty to God actually supercedes any civil duties. Christ clearly drew this distinction when he said, “render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mt 22:21) Therefore, obedience to Caesar does not excuse one from the far greater obligation of obedience to God. St. Thomas More expressed this relationship concisely and beautifully on the scaffold only moments before his martyrdom. “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
I would suggest that our current episcopal leaders reflect upon and take this heroic saint’s words to heart today – by acting to defend the spiritual good, and religious rights, of their respective flocks rather than locking them out of the sanctuary and depriving them of sacramental consolations in this moment of great need. Instead they rather seem to be emulating the 300 or so bishops in 16th century England who, weak kneed, capitulated to the tyrannical demands of the king in order to save their skins. By doing so they threw their flocks into confusion and despair. In the end England was lost to the Faith of its Fathers, a loss which has reverberated throughout the entire world down to our present day and nation. Only one bishop in England at the time, John Fisher of Rochester, resisted the heavy handed intrusion of “Caesar” on the religious consciences of the faithful. His resistance resulted in his joining his confrere Thomas More on the executioner’s block, yet winning him a glorious crown of martyrdom. It didn’t have to end that way, however. Had a simple majority of the English bishops stood firm in opposition to a tyrant, wielding their authority rightly as Peter and the apostles had done, they might have spared much heartbreak and bloodshed throughout subsequent history.
That brings us back to today, where the current senseless capitulation to the unreasonable demands of civil leaders more attuned to fear-mongering than to calming passions has become the norm. There is no real need to turn an entire nation into a concentration camp, while denying key religious liberties, under the guise of public health. I would recommend that our episcopal leaders re-read and take sincerely to heart the third chapter of the Book of Daniel. This is that beautiful story of fidelity in the face of an unreasonable command by the Babylonian king to worship an idol. (Just as today we idolize many things: be they celebrity opinions, social progress, medical and other science, political agendas ~ as if these things were our final end.) But three of the king’s ministers, Shadrach, Mishach, and Abednego refused to abandon the truth and so refused the king’s impious order. They replied, “There is no need for us to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If our God, whom we serve, can save us from the white hot furnace and from your hands, O king, may he save us! But even if he will not, know, O king, that we will not serve your god or worship the golden statue which you set up.” (Dn 3:17-18)
Of course, they were thrown into the furnace but God heard their prayer and sent his angel to miraculously deliver them. In humility and faith the three men prayed: “We are reduced, O Lord, beyond any other nation, brought low everywhere because of our sins… But with contrite heart and humble spirit let us be received, as though it were holocausts of rams and bullocks, or thousands of fat lambs, so let our sacrifice be in your presence today as we follow you unreservedly; for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame… Deliver us by your wonders, and bring glory to your name, O Lord.” (Dn 3:37; 39-40; 43)
And so in our own moments of fear and crisis are we set to join the clanging chorus of panic and alarm or rather to follow the examples of Thomas More, John Fisher, Shadrach, Mishach, and Abednego in turning to God by keeping his holy Sabbath intact? What we do next will speak volumes to a watching world. But we need the help and cooperation of our bishops and shepherds so that all Christians can acclaim loudly, publicly, and in solidarity to a skeptical world that sees only the momentary, but not the eternal, consequences of things, “for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame.”
Our bishops need to restore full public Liturgies and the Eucharist to the people who need its healing and strengthening powers now more than ever. To deprive the faithful of spiritual nourishment at such a time is worse than withholding bread from one’s starving children. It is the worst sort of abuse possible.
Francis J. Pierson +a.m.d.g.