Faith is a gift. The ability to practice that faith, to worship freely, to share our faith in the public square, is also a gift. Each year, the Church in the US observes Religious Freedom Week. This year, we focus on Solidarity in Freedom. In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis writes, “Solidarity means much more than engaging in sporadic acts of generosity. It means thinking and acting in terms of community” (Fratelli Tutti, 116). The theme of Solidarity in Freedom forces us out into a global mindset, to one of community and fraternity. I’d like to focus on Religious Freedom Week through the stories of two men 400 years apart, Safa Al Alqoshy and St. John Southworth.
At the 2018 Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, Safa Al Alqoshy, the only youth delegate from Iraq to the Synod, shared the story of the struggle of Iraqi Christians. While I didn’t meet Safa in my time at the 2018 Synod, I was around him during the 2019 Post-Synod Forum in Rome on Christus Vivit. His stories from the Synod followed him back to Rome where he was met with great admiration. Even though he had to arrive at the Forum late, the community that formed with him was immediate.
Safa said to Crux, “It’s very important to pay attention that there is not only persecution by killing, there is a persecution by psychology, by feelings. You feel that you are alone, that you are not supported” (Crux). Safa expressed the reality of friends and family fleeing from Iraq, likely not to be seen again. He wasn’t just speaking generally about the people of Iraq, but from his own personal experience. He shared about two of his friends who were killed in a car bombing in 2009 and how Safa and his friends shared the common experience of saying, “see you next week” only to never see one another again.
The temptation can be to take Safa’s story, and the story of so many Christians like him across the world, and to use it for our own advantage. To share it as an example, but one devoid of the personal reality which courses through its proverbial veins. When we share Safa’s story as just another example of the terrible persecution that Christians face, even worse as a “look what could happen to us next” story in relation to religious freedom in the US, we fail to show solidarity. We dehumanize those who have died, those who have been separated by the flight for freedom and safety, and we turn our suffering brothers and sisters into objects whose story we use for our perceived gain. No, instead, Pope Francis urges us to be in true solidarity with Safa and his friends and family, to think and act in community. We must pray for them, we must give when we can give, but we cannot use them as pawns in a game of politics that is antithetical to true solidarity.
About 400 years before Safa there lived an English priest by the name of John Southworth. John was born around 1592 and was ordained in 1618 at the English College, Douai in France. St. John was arrested and imprisoned multiple times throughout his life, all for being a Catholic priest. Between his imprisonments, St. John would serve the plague victims of Westminster and provide sacraments to the sick and dying. St. John was arrested for the final time in 1654 and was sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered. His body was returned to France in 1655 and buried after having been, literally, put back together. During the war between the English and French in 1793, St. John’s body was buried in an unmarked grave where it remained until 1927 when the grave was discovered. He was canonized in 1970 by Pope St. Paul VI.
John’s story is one of perseverance and solidarity. He was arrested multiple times and, eventually, killed for his Catholic faith. All throughout that time, he remained in solidarity with the English people, serving them through the sacraments, refusing to allow his own persecution to stand in the way of his Gospel mandate to be Christ to the world around him.
Religious Freedom Week invites us to be, like St. John, fervent in our faith. It reminds us that, even in times of persecution, we carry on in sharing the Gospel. The week also invites us to remember those in our days who are persecuted, such as Safa and our brothers and sisters in Iraq. Solidarity means that we are united with them in prayerful community, but never using them for our own means- detaching their story from their persons. May we pray for all persecuted Christians and reflect upon the meaning of religious freedom this week with the hope of growing in solidarity with our brothers and sisters across our Universal Church.