IS DEATH A THREAT?
Homily delivered by Archbishop Socrates B. Villegas at the Mass of Holy Chrism on Holy Thursday, April 18, 2019 at Saint John the Evangelist Cathedral, Dagupan City
Have you ever received a death threat as priests? Were you ever a recipient of an anonymous letter or a text message threatening you with a bullet shot for doing the work of God? Were you ever threatened with a false media expose against your good name because you stood for the truth and you stood for the Lord? Did you ever receive a threat that a religious procession will be bombed or a prayer rally will be disrupted to scare the people whom you invited from attending? Were you ever cursed for simply ringing church bells to pray for the killed?
Were you surprised? Were you scared? Did you consider hiding and stopping your work as priests? Did you cry alone? Did you pray? Did you ask the Lord “What have I done to deserve this?”
Have you forgotten Queen Jezebel threatening Elijah “Now I am going to kill you! I pray that the gods will punish me even more severely if I don’t do it by this time tomorrow.”(1 Kings 19:2)
Did they not threaten the prophet Jeremiah “This man should be sentenced to death because he has prophesied against this city. You have heard it with your own ears!” (Jer 26:11)
There is nothing surprising with priests being threatened with death. We should not have accepted ordination if we were afraid to die or be killed for the Lord. It is destiny. It is fate. Guhit ng palad ng kaparian.
To be threatened with violence is an opportunity of grace as the Lord admonished us “You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell the rulers and other unbelievers about me.” (Mt 10:18)
The Lord’s words to Peter are addressed to us also “Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” (Jn 21:18-19).
Death is not a threat. It is our destiny. To be killed is not a defeat of our mission. Martyrdom is the crowning glory of our mission. Daily we celebrate the memory of the death and rising of the Lord. Daily we must share in that mystery so that when we die, our death will only be a fitting crown of our daily dying for the Lord. We are seeds and when we are buried we give life (cfr Jn 12:24)
We must be priests for all seasons, priests for sunny middays and dark midnights. “Into each life some rain must fall, some days must be dark and dreary” said Henry Longfellow. We may have to go through these dreary times of darkness but behind the clouds the sun is still shining. Death is our mission and in our death the world receives life. We have been through better times when priests were revered, trusted and esteemed. Those days seem to be behind us but we are still here serving as priests in season and out of season. Sometimes it is not death. Sometimes the threat is spreading calumny. If they cannot kill us by the bullet, they kill our reputation instead. We are called many names—sex addicts, child predators, priest playboys, priest gamblers, priest husbands—the litany is endless. It is tiring and annoying. It is wearisome and fatiguing.
We face the next two years, leading to the half millennium of the first Mass and first baptism within our shores, and who confronts us? We are sent to an angry disbelieving society. We are priests sent to a nation whose leader mocks God and calls Him stupid. The bishop’s mother is derided as a prostitute and there is a marching order to kill any bishop you see. All priests are sex maniacs and piety is ridiculed. Honesty is optional and delicadeza is outdated. To top it all, our Catholic faithful are clapping and campaigning for his enablers to win the elections. “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless” said Bonhoeffer.
We must face this angry and disbelieving society with the witness of our faith and say with Peter “We must obey God rather than men”. (Acts 29:5) “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel”. (1Cor 9:16) We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair, persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus (2Cor 4:8-10).
We must confront with holy anger the more than thirty thousand senseless murders of the poor in the name of a false drug-free society, with our courage to face death eyeball to eyeball and declare “Death where is your sting? Grave where is your victory?No weapon formed against us will prosper. The gates of hell won’t stand.”
We must exorcise the creeping culture of vulgarity, obscenity, lewd jokes and lack of good breeding, with the humble power of the Crucified Lord. We must not fear suffering rebukes, being calumniated, forgotten, ridiculed, wronged or suspected.”Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Mt 10:28).
We must reject the father of lies and prince of darkness by the courage to stand up for the truth, the bravery to shield it from deception and fake news. Bring the fight not just in the pulpit but on social media and in the plaza. Flood social media with the power of love. Make good manners fragrant and attractive. Make them see the mercy of God on Facebook. “They will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them”. (Mk 16:18).
“A church that does not provoke any crises, a gospel that does not unsettle, a word of God that does not get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that does not touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed—What gospel is that? You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish,” said Saint Oscar Romero.
Brother priests, make friends with death. Let death not threaten you. The call to the priesthood is a call to die. It is clear. There is no priesthood without victimhood. We would be fake priests if we separated the Upper Room from Calvary.
Priests of God, make friends with death, do not fear it. These times demand courage, much courage. When future generations write this episode of our history, may they see us on the right side of the story, that when we were given a chance to die, we stepped forward and embraced our martyrdom!