It was a tiring but joyous Paschal Triduum. After the Easter Vigil, my head finally hit the pillow around one o’clock in the morning. My deep sleep was awakened about an hour later by my ringing phone. Calls at that hour are never good. This call did not come from afar, but only across the hall from me in the rectory. It was my brother priest and fellow curate at the parish who is from Sri Lanka.
He is a priest of the Archdiocese of Colombo and called to inform me of the attacks on churches across his country and earnestly requested my prayers. He was familiar with some of the churches attacked and knows several of the victims—including two injured priests, one of whom has only been ordained for two years. We spoke for a bit and I assured him that he was not alone in his grief and that I would pray. We both awoke before Easter Sunday Mass to discover the full scale of the violence.
In a well-coordinated attack primarily targeting Catholics at Easter Sunday Mass, Islamic terrorists killed almost 300 people and injured some 500 more in eight suicide bombings that rocked churches and luxury hotels in the nation’s capital of Colombo and the cities of Negombo and Batticaloa. The most emblematic image of the day was that of a statue of the risen Christ splattered with the blood of faithful parishioners who died in prayer.
More than any other time in history, Christians are under threat for their faith. We cannot be unaffected by this. We cannot allow the blood of our Christian brothers and sisters to be shed in vain. But what are we to do? We must respond to this evil with holiness, goodness, and charity. We must strengthen our Catholic faith and make it truly active.
As Tertullian famously noted, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” In 1219, with the blessing of their spiritual father, St. Francis, five Franciscans named Berard, Peter, Adjute, Accurs, and Odo left Italy to preach the saving truths of the Gospel to the Muslims in Morocco. They did this out of charity, for the greatest poverty is to not know Jesus Christ. Upon their arrival the friars were immediately apprehended and ordered to leave the country which they bravely refused to do. They continued preaching even while in prison and endured beatings and resisted bribes to renounce their Faith.
Finally, the friars were beheaded by the sultan himself. Upon learning of their deaths, Francis exclaimed, “Now I can truly say that I have five Friars Minor!”
The relics of the five protomartyrs of the Franciscan Order were returned to Portugal, where a young Augustinian Canon of the monastery at Coimbra made a visit to pray before them. Inspired by their example and realizing he was called to “do more” for God, this young canon was filled with a longing to follow them—not only in taking on the coarse habit of the Franciscans but also to become a missionary and a martyr himself. That young man is now one of the most famous and beloved saints in the Church. That young man was St. Anthony of Padua. His glorious life as a missionary preacher and wonder-worker would never have happened were it not for the inspiration given to him by martyrs, according to God’s Providence.
Like St. Anthony, we should take inspiration from the Easter martyrs of Sri Lanka to do more for God.
Pius Parsch reminds us that “Christianity is not a dullard’s dream, no asylum for idlers—Christianity means struggle. Above all it is a struggle against flesh and blood; it presumes a willingness to take the cross upon oneself and to follow Christ.” It is the one who dies for Christ who has fulfilled this truth most perfectly. The blood that was shed yesterday in Sri Lanka must spur us on to go and do likewise.
In the face of their sacrifice, we should be embarrassed and ashamed by our own lukewarmness and be aware of what it leads to. Hilaire Belloc commented prophetically in 1929: “We shall almost certainly have to reckon with Islam in the near future. Perhaps, if we lose our faith, it will rise.” To honor those who died yesterday and to best respond to this evil perpetrated, we ought to commit ourselves ever more deeply to our Catholic faith. May we never take our freedom to worship for granted again by missing Sunday Mass out of laziness when so many Christians across the globe risk their lives to fulfill this obligation to God.
In the midst of the sadness and pain at the horror in Sri Lanka, we must proclaim the truth that defines who we are as Christians all the more vigorously this Easter: Christ is risen! And by His death He conquered death. As a result, we have no fear of those who can “kill the body.” In fact, apart from sin we need not fear anything for we know “…the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died …but they are at peace” (Wisdom 3:1-3).
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