Those of us old enough to remember the presidency of John F. Kennedy might also remember the attention paid to his being the first Roman Catholic to hold the Office of President.
As late as 1960, Americans still debated and, in some circles, feared Kennedy’s supposed dominant allegiance as a Catholic to the Pope. As hard as he tried to debunk a “takeover” by the Vatican, some Americans simply refused to let go of their anti-Catholic bigotry. American historian Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., a friend of JFK, referred to this prejudice as “the deepest bias in the history of the American people.” An honest, in-depth study of United States’ religious history, sad to say, confirms that opinion time and again, especially when religion and politics and economics and social ascendency intermingled in the development of our nation.
1960 is not that long ago, but anti-Catholicism has survived. It is, as another American historian Philip Jenkins has written, “the last acceptable prejudice” in America. Combined with the ongoing and widespread contemporary rejection in this country of deeply held Catholic moral teachings, Catholicism still struggles to find its voice in the “American Public Square.” Recent efforts spearheaded by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to make “religious freedom” a priority for the nation’s over 70 million Catholics (22 percent of the U.S. population) have met with mixed reactions even within the Church.
Perhaps that reality accounts for the lack of urgency given to the situation confronted by Catholics and Christians in other parts of the world, especially in the cradle of Christianity, the Middle East, where the very survival of Christianity is at risk. Violence, oppression, persecution, hostility and genocide are driving Christians who do survive to abandon their homelands and, often enough, their Christian faith. And the situation grows worse by the day.
Nov. 26, the Solemnity of Jesus Christ our King, has been designated by the USCCB as a National Day of Prayer for Persecuted Christians, followed by a Week of Awareness. Pope Francis has reminded us, “We must not resign ourselves to thinking of a Middle East without Christians, who for 2,000 years have confessed the name of Jesus, and have been fully integrated as citizens into the social, cultural and religious life of the nations to which they belong.”
Given our history as Catholics and Americans yet bolstered by the resilience and determination that accompany both those identities, the plight of persecuted Christians in the Middle East and, indeed, all around the world, should resonate within our minds and hearts, inspire us to pray, and move us to whatever generosity and action lie within our grasp. The cradle of Christianity, in particular, without the presence of Christians – without Christ – is unimaginable ... but possible. The situation is that serious.
As we celebrate the Solemnity of Jesus Christ our King, let us beg him to protect all those facing persecution for the sake of his name. May Christ the King and Good Shepherd watch over his flock with loving care and never let them be scattered.