I would like to reflect on one of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 5:10).
In each of the Beatitudes, Our Lord Jesus Christ sets forth a principle which is in accordance with the natural or supernatural order of things; therefore, it is something in keeping with the wisdom, justice and goodness of God.
The fact that the Divine Saviour proclaims a Beatitude does not mean that it comes into effect at that moment. On the contrary, from the beginning of the world, since Abel was murdered by Cain until the last martyr who must die before the end of time, all who have suffered persecution for the sake of justice are promised of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The sufferings of the soul are more terrible than those of the body
To understand why this is in the nature of things, we must analyse what “persecution” and “for justice’ sake” are.
As for the first, those who are about my age1 have heard so much about the Roman persecutions of Christians that, when this subject is spoken of, they remember those who were martyred in the Circus Maximus or the Colosseum at the time of the Roman Empire of the West.
These, who paid for their faith with their lives, are the persecuted ones par excellence.
Then, with a little reasoning, we can agree that, for example, the Catholic victims of the Nazi concentration camps also suffered persecution. They died because they were Catholics; so they too are martyrs. This would include, for example, St. Maximilian Kolbe, who was truly a saint and who died as a victim of his fidelity to the Catholic Faith and of his desire to help people who were about to die a terrible death in a Nazi extermination chamber.
Sacerdotes e civis poloneses reféns das tropas nazistas, na cidade de Bydgoszcz (Polônia), em 1939
But we are always left with the idea that true persecution is the bloody kind, that is, which takes someone’s life or at least harms the body. Psychological persecution, the moral torture inflicted on a person because he loves justice, is rarely presented to us as such.
But however great the suffering of the body may be, the noblest part of man is the soul; and the sufferings of the soul, when they are great, are more terrible than great physical sufferings.
In the Garden of Olives, Our Lord suffered His psychological and moral crucifixion
Man suffers more in the soul than in the body. This is the reason why, of all the episodes of Our Lord Jesus Christ’s Passion, I have a deeper and more immediate veneration for the agony in the Garden, because there He suffered what could well be called His psychological and moral crucifixion.
The Redeemer foresaw all that would be done to Him until the end, and He accepted it. He had to submit even to the slumber and infidelity of the Apostles; and then came all the rest.
This suffering was so great that, according to the Gospels, Jesus began to experience desolation – that is to say, aridity – and dread at what was going to happen, and He even sweated blood, which is one of the most extreme manifestations of moral suffering (cf. Mt 26:37-38; Mk 14:33-34; Lk 22:44).
“Oração no Horto”, por Gregório Lopes – Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisboa (Portugal)
Throughout the Passion, the moral suffering was greater than the physical. To the point that, although the physical suffering was unspeakable, Our Lord’s complaint on the Cross was of the moral suffering, the aridity in which Providence had left Him, the abandonment of His most holy humanity: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34).
It is not a question of rebellion or of discontent, but one similar to the question full of submission that Our Lady put to Jesus when He was a child and had disappeared. She found Him in the Temple and asked Him: “Son, why have You treated us so?” (Lk 2:48). It was a great suffering of the soul.
Jesus, therefore, suffered the most horrendous pains in His most holy Body during the Passion; but the moral pains were greater.
For this reason, the iconography of the Church presents Our Lord with His Body covered with wounds, but His gaze expressing a greater suffering due to the infidelities and ingratitude that He bore, and the wickedness with which He was persecuted.
Therefore, we conclude once again that moral persecution, which causes the soul to suffer, is crueller than the persecution that hurts the body.
The worst form of persecution is to drag souls into sin
We have further proof of this in the attitude of some martyrs of the time of the Roman Empire in the West. Some of them entered the arena so happily that it was as though they were already entering Heaven, because they were spared the spiritual suffering by a design of God. At the moment when they became the prey of a jaguar, a tiger, or a lion, they were flooded with consolation, resplendent with joy, utterly astonishing the pagan spectators of the martyrdom, who could not understand how, in such a fearful situation, one could be joyful.
Why this joy? The bodily suffering was present, but the suffering of the soul was absent. Thus, the principal category of persecution is that of the soul, in which the attempt is made to tempt and drag it into sin, so that the soul suffers for not consenting to sin. This is a quintessential form of persecution.
“Justice”: synthesis of all the virtues
The other point: persecuted “for justice’ sake”.
What is the meaning of “justice” in this beatitude? It is not only the cardinal virtue of justice, by which each person is given what is due to him, what he has a right to. The word justice is used in the Old Testament to refer to the virtues as a whole: the theological virtues, the cardinal virtues and all their derived virtues. Therefore, one is being hated not for the defects, but for qualities one has.
Let us now turn to the deeper reason for this. The individual who suffers persecution for the love of justice knows perfectly well – and if he is not a cultured man, he at least has an intuition, because everyone, when it comes to his personal interest, is very intuitive – that he is being persecuted for this reason. And he also perceives that if he ceases to love justice, to practise virtue or to encourage virtue in others, such persecution will cease.
For example, the boy who is ridiculed by his companions because he is chaste is well aware that any indecency he commits will put an end to all antipathy towards him. Everyone who is persecuted has at least a hazy notion of the cause of that persecution.
Reward of those who love eternal goods above earthly ones
Now, despite knowing why he is persecuted, he prefers to accept a difficult life, full of opposition, slander and criticism, rather than to give up virtue. This means that for the sake of eternal and supernatural goods, he sacrifices his happiness on this earth.
Chastity, for example, is a natural virtue. But if the individual practises it to do God’s will, from the perspective of Revelation, from the perspective of the observance of the Commandments, he performs a supernatural act.
Thus, when he prefers to be persecuted rather than to transgress against what, in an inadequate expression, we would call a supernatural value, he gives evident proof that he loves what is transcendent and eternal more than what is earthly.
And so, because in this life a person has so embraced what is eternal and supernatural that he has sacrificed earthly joy, his reward is that which he has loved: the Kingdom of Heaven.
That is to say, Heaven is given as a recompense to the one who, suffering persecution, persevered; to the one who, in defence of eternal values, sacrificed his earthly life. As a reward, he receives the kiss of God – the personification of the virtues he has practised, and whom he will contemplate face to face for all eternity. He sacrificed everything on earth, and he will have everything in the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Kingdom of Heaven is already realized on this earth
But the Kingdom of Heaven does not exist only in the other life. It is already realized on this earth. In other words, those who are persecuted for the sake of justice have a peace, a tranquillity of conscience, an inner order that the sinner does not have. The Kingdom of Heaven dwells in them, because they practise the Commandments and remain in a state of grace.
Because of this, already in this world they enjoy the protection and the care of Our Lady; they can endure aridities and terrible trials, but they are continually sustained, preserving an interior happiness that is worth more than all earthly joys.
In one of his epistles, St. Paul recounts all that he has suffered, including episodes in which he was shipwrecked, had to flee from a city by being lowered in a basket from a window of a house, among a series of other things (cf. 2 Cor 11:23-27,33). Well, in the midst of these tribulations he was overflowing with joy.
It was not directly a joy of well-being, of sensible consolation, but a profound joy of the soul, proceeding from his righteousness.
Persecutions are a proof of God’s love
Thus, to be persecuted for the sake of justice is a reason for joy. It is proof that one is with the good, that one can have a clear conscience. To be persecuted by the wicked is to follow in the footsteps of Our Lord Jesus Christ, to go where He went, to carry His Cross like Simon of Cyrene.
We carry the Cross of Christ to the extent that we accept to be persecuted with Him. And just as the Cyrenean became famous in history and is considered blessed because He carried the Cross, we ought to give thanks to God if we are chosen to do so.
Indeed, not just anyone suffers persecution for the sake of justice. God gives a special proof of His love when He chooses someone to be persecuted, to at times take the place of Christ. This is an enormous glory, whose due value we should appreciate.
“Tread where I have trod”
Let us imagine that a king were to approach one of his subjects and say to him:
“Tomorrow I have to make a ceremonious entrance into a city, but I cannot go. So you will act as the king; when you arrive there, you will give this notice. You will be welcomed by everyone and put in a car with a magnificent seat, and then make a tour of the whole city, while the people give you a rousing ovation.”
Dr. Plinio em 1975
The subject would kneel at the king’s feet and reply:
“My lord, what an honour to be able to take your place in such a role. I thank you.”
More than that, we should say to Our Lord Jesus Christ through Our Lady: “My Lord, what an honour it to take Thy place and carry Thy Cross! How good it is of Thee to confer this upon me. I accept, give me strength! Mother of Mercy, help me!”
Sometimes this strength is hard to find. A certain nun was favoured with a vision of Our Lord Jesus Christ carrying the Cross and inviting her to follow Him. She set out, but stepping on stones and other obstacles which caused her excruciating pain, she could hardly keep up with the Redeemer’s steps.
Then Jesus turned to her and said, “I will teach you a way by which your strength will not fail you. Look at the ground and note where I leave footsteps; instead of treading anywhere, tread where I have trod, and then the way will be easy for you.”
Let us unite ourselves to Our Lady and try to suffer with Her; in this way we will be on the easy and sure path taught by St. Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort. Mary Most Holy will help us, and we shall reach our goal. ◊
Taken, with adaptations, from:
Dr. Plinio. São Paulo. Year XIV.
N.159 (June, 2011); p.27-30
1 Dr. Plinio was sixty-six years old when he gave the conference transcribed here.