Pray for Christians Around the World

The following first appears in the spring 2015 issue of Marian Helper magazine. Order a free copy.

Interview by Fr. Joe Roesch, MIC

A roll call of countries where Christians are persecuted in the Pope's Christmas message to the city of Rome and the world: That doesn't sound like a happy Christmas gift, and yet for our persecuted brethren, knowing that their plight hasn't been forgotten means the world to them. I spoke to the Superior General of the Marian Fathers, the Very Rev. Fr. Andrzej Pakula, MIC, to learn more about why Pope Francis keeps drawing attention to our brothers and sisters suffering for Jesus.

Why is Pope Francis drawing attention to the persecution of Christians around the world?
In the Gospel, we hear that Jesus looked on the crowds with compassion. The compassion of Jesus was not just a pious glance from afar in which He commiserated with those poor people around Him who were suffering. Jesus literally suffers with those who suffer, feeling their pain and anguish. I think the Pope, as the Vicar of Christ, is trying to call the Church to a similar compassion for our brothers and sisters who are suffering. We need to be in solidarity with them, pray for them, and find ways to help.

How bad is the persecution of Christians at present?
We hear on the news of persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Africa, among other places. Some of it is horrendous and blatant. Other times, it is more subtle. Often it is related to wars and terrorism. The Holy Father recently met with Christian refugees in Turkey and has stated that he would go to Iraq if he could. I don't know how to quantify the persecution today as opposed to the persecution through history, but there are certainly many Christians in the world who are suffering terribly today.

Why is persecution a perennial fact in the life of the Church?
Jesus once said to His disciples, "If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you." He often warned us of ongoing persecution and included it among the beatitudes. Certain governments are wary of Christians because they are afraid that they threaten the social order and conformity with their ideology. We also know that there is a spiritual battle that is ongoing against Christ and His Church. This is a continuous reality throughout history.

How have the Marians experienced persecution throughout history?
In 1798, after Napoleon seized Rome, he threw all foreign religious communities out of the city, including ours. The Partitioning of Poland also affected how our Congregation could grow and be governed in the 1800s. Religious communities were expelled from Portugal in 1834, including our own. In retaliation for a Polish national uprising against Czarist Russia in 1863, religious communities such as ours were prohibited from taking in new members. A number of Marians were sent to prison camps and hard labor in Siberia. Some were martyred for their faith. Our community came to the point of extinction by 1908, having only one surviving member due to religious persecution. By 1928, the renovated Marian community had a mission in Harbin, Manchuria. Government officials closed it down in 1948. Our men were dispersed: some were martyred and some sent to the gulag in Siberia. Two of our men in Belorussia, Blessed George Kaszyra and Blessed Anthony Leszczewicz, were martyred by the Nazis during World War II. Knowing all their parishioners would be killed, they chose to stay and help them prepare for death. Then, after World War II, many of our men who served in various countries behind the Iron Curtain suffered persecution for many years at the hands of the Communists until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

In 1994, our Marians were eyewitnesses to the genocide in Rwanda. Innocent people were killed before their eyes. Their lives were threatened. They and their ministries are affected to this day. Everyone in that country needs healing of one sort or another. One of our men has worked for years to offer counseling to priests, religious, and many lay persons so that their hearts can be healed in order to help other people.

How do these experiences of persecution help shape the Marians today?
The Marians were forced to live clandestinely and had to stop wearing a religious habit. Our way of doing ministry was restricted. In the 20th century, many Marians had to live clandestinely under the Communist regimes in countries that were either part of or under the orbit of the former Soviet Union.

Are any of the Marians or Marian ministries around the globe currently experiencing persecution?
In some countries where we work, there is a sort of soft persecution. There are limits placed on how our pastoral ministry can be carried out. Priests can work only in a parish, nowhere else. In some places, we can't send foreign priests to work.

Our Marians in Ukraine are affected by the ongoing war in their country. There is a lack of stability and uncertainty about the future. This is especially true in Crimea, where the Marians have a parish in Sevastapol. Will the people in that parish continue to have a priest to take care of their spiritual needs?

How can Marian Helpers assist those who are being persecuted?
The most important thing the Marian Helpers can do is pray. Many of these problems are not easily resolved, and it is even a sensitive topic to discuss them. There is an unfounded fear on the part of some governments toward Christians. Some laws and practices are based on presumptions about Christians that are not always true. What to do? Some things can only be decided on a higher level than the government of a particular country. So pray that the Holy Spirit will continue to guide Pope Francis and the Church that we would be able to stay on the path that Christ has set for us.

Father Joe Roesch, MIC, is the vicar general for the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. He lives in Rome.

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