ROME (LifeSiteNews) — As I sit musing over what to write for this year’s Christmas reflection a host of traditional, heart-warming Christmas topics come to mind. Describing the wintry scenes of Christmas in a small village in my native England is something which is very appealing to me, particularly if I can find a way to tie in a number of references to carols and the wonderful choral traditions which so beautifully mark this season in England.
But this is something which I have already done: two years ago trying to describe the indescribable joys of midnight Mass and then last year indulging in my love of Christmas carols. As tempting as it was to simply return to form and indulge in those topics once again, I found myself unable to do so this year.
This is for two reasons. First, because a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to spend some time in the Catacombs of St. Callixtus just outside the center of Rome. In those brief minutes spent several meters below the surface I was overwhelmed with a sense of just how deep was the love those early Christians had for the Catholic faith.
As a Catholic, it is hard not to be impressed by the catacombs. One walks past row upon row, corridor leading into corridor, and room after room all full of tombs. Tombs which were the resting place of countless Catholics, who were prepared to suffer and die for their faith – and many of those whose remains ended up in the catacombs did just that.
Walking past those (now empty) graves I was inescapably struck by the strength of character which those Catholics of the early Church must have had. They lived in an age where they freely accepted the possibility of horrendous tortures and death, simply for publicly professing their faith, or for not worshipping an emperor. Their memory was quietly contained in the catacombs, where centuries later I found myself walking past the empty graves trying to imagine myself as one of those early Christians.
Would I have been able to live to bravely as they did? To be able to accept such a likely fate as torture and death for being Catholic? Such questions rang out from every grave I passed. It was an endlessly repeated question that was both so silent and yet so inescapable.
The second reason was when I read about Christians who are enduring precisely the conditions which the early Christians lived through. In Aid to the Church in Need’s report about persecuted Christians around the world, there was no need to picture myself as part of the early Church whilst walking amidst the catacombs. On every page of ACN’s report were presented details about people who are daily suffering and dying for their faith.
Take for example the summary description of Afghanistan: “The rise of the Taliban has driven Christians underground — they live in fear of arrest, torture and execution.”
Or that of China: “Authorities have increased pressure on Christians, with arrests, the forced closure of churches and new draconian legislation.”
Even worse, here is the brief description of the conditions for Christians in North Korea this Christmas: “Extreme Christian persecution is judged to have reached the threshold for genocide, with reports of murder, forced abortions and infanticide, and slavery.”
The charity referenced a “cultural misperception in the West” which “continues to deny that Christians remain the most widely persecuted faith group.”
Reading through that report presented me with a cold, uncomfortable reality – a reality which is all too easy to forget about unless encountered in such a manner. Namely, that I cannot simply theorize in the catacombs about whether I would be a faithful soul if I lived in the early centuries of persecution. The times of persecution are still here, they are the current times!
There is a ready ease by which one can forget about the great sufferings endured by millions around the globe to this day, all because they remain true to their faith. Not for them the traditional joys of Christmas to which I cling so dearly – the log fire, the merry carols, the glories of midnight Mass, the traditional food and tasty delights of assorted baking.
Instead, these numberless, but oft forgotten souls, are spending this Christmas much like any other day – perhaps in fear for their lives, perhaps in cold and wet because they cannot find suitable employment without reneging on the faith, perhaps in hunger.
I did not want to forget the experience I had in the catacombs, but when presented with the harsh reality of such persecution still happening today that experience took a very different tone. No longer could I casually ask myself whether I would remain true to the faith – the faith in which we celebrate the coming of the Christ child this Christmas. Instead, I now have to ask myself if I can honestly say I would be as true to the faith as are those millions who currently endure persecution.
The question in abstract is a moving one, but when put into modern, real context, it becomes decidedly unpleasant.
And yet for those millions who endured and still endure persecution, they remain true to this Catholic faith because they love and follow Christ, that little baby whose coming into the world we celebrate every Christmas. Their love for this little child is what moves them to practice heroic virtue in the face of trials, pain or death.
So this Christmas, despite what you might be thinking by this stage, dear reader, I will not be sitting alone in a corner, thinking only somber thoughts about life. I shall be celebrating the feast as befits it, with joy aimed at Christ.
What will be different this year is that I shall pray that the Infant King will grant me the strength to love Him as do those brave souls, who have – and are yet to do so – witnessed to Christ in the manger through their suffering and death.
A very blessed Christmas!