On [last] Sunday, Pope Benedict reminded all Christians that Lent “is a matter of following Jesus who turns decisively toward the Cross, the culmination of this mission of salvation. If we ask: Why Lent? Why the Cross? The answer, in radical terms, is this: because evil exists, rather, sin, which according to Scripture is the deepest form cause of every evil.” Lent is the time when Christians embrace their Crosses and use them as weapons to defeat evil: to vanquish the evil of placing other gods before the Lord through sacrificing other activities to make time for God in prayer; to overcome the evil of seeking to dominate others rather than lovingly serve them through offering oneself and what one has to others; to overcome the evil of seeking to maximize pleasures and minimize pains by the self-discipline of fasting in order to hunger for God’s words. All of these teach us how to lose our life in this world in order teach us to save it forever by giving it for God and others.
Many of us, however, like Simon of Cyrene, need to be compelled to join Christ on the Way of the Cross, even during the season of Lent. In our day in which, as Pope Benedict noted, the “eclipse of God” has necessarily brought about an “eclipse of sin” — an obscuring of evil and a weakening of the importance of expiation and reparation — many Christians at a practical level have begun to look at the Cross as an optional part of the Christian life. For those who recognize they can’t eliminate the Cross from the Christian life, many seek to embrace it only as a token, fashioning Crosses made out of Styrofoam, covered with velvet, and fitted with rollers. We fast a little, pray a little more that usual, and give a little more than the minimum, but we don’t embrace the Cross with heroism, because we don’t believe that heroism is required. We often look at the Cross fundamentally as an added burden to make us stronger, rather than what it really is: an instrument of death, a means given by God to crucify the world to us and us to the world, so that we, being crucified with Christ, may live no longer for ourselves but by faith in Him (Gal 2:18-20; 6:14-15).
For that reason, we have an urgent need for contemporary role models who will show us what it means to embrace the Cross and confront evil with the power of God. This Lent the whole Christian world has been blessed with such a man. On March 2, the Pakistani Cabinet Minister for Minorities, 42-year-old Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated by Muslim fanatics associated with the Taliban. Soon after he had left his mother’s house and was traveling through a residential district to a meeting, a team of gunmen stopped his car and riddled him with bullets. The group that carried out the hit, Tehrik-i-Taliban, told the BCC that they had carried out the attack because Bhatti, a Roman Catholic, was a “known blasphemer,” because he dared to do his job and speak out forcefully in favor of religious freedom and against Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy law, which makes it a crime punishable by death to speak disrespectfully of Islam, the Qu’ran or Mohammed.
Bhatti was particularly outspoken in defense of Asia Bibi, the Christian mother of five who was sentenced to be hung for blasphemy. Her capital crime was to say, in a dispute with a belligerent Muslim neighbor who had attacked her Christian faith, “Jesus Christ was crucified for the sins of people. What did Muhammed do for people?” Thanks to an international outcry, including an appeal by Pope Benedict XVI, her execution has been postponed; in the meantime she has been imprisoned in solitary confinement in a prison plastered with posters meant to intimidate, featuring the slain photos of Bhatti and the assassinated Governor of Punjab Providence, Salman Taseer, asking, “Who’s next?” On January 4, Taseer was shot 26 times by a member of his government-assigned security team because of his own defense of Bibi and opposition to the blasphemy law.
Bhatti knew upon taking the Cabinet level position to stick up for the rights of minorities in Pakistan — not merely for Christians, but for Sikhs and for the others who are not part of the 96% Muslim majority — that he would be a marked man. When he was offered the position, he had no illusions that he was embracing a Cross that would lead to his death. But he lifted it high and courageously, willing to offer his life for Christ and for his country.
In an interview for a 2008 book by Msgr. Dino Pistolato entitled, “Christians in Pakistan: Where Hope Is Tested,” Bhatti was plain about how he was bribed and threatened to abandon his struggle to defend those whose religious freedom and lives were endangered because of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
“I was offered high government positions and asked to quit my struggle,” he related, “but I always refused to give up, even at the cost of my life. I said: ‘No, I want to serve Jesus as a common man.’ I am happy with this devotion. I do not want popularity; I do not want any position. I want just a place at Jesus’ feet. I want that my life, my character, my actions speak for me and indicate that I am following Jesus Christ.”
With humility, honesty and holy firmness, he said that he was willing to sacrifice his whole life for Christ and for those in need. “Because of this desire, I will consider myself even to be more fortunate if — in this effort and struggle to help the needy, the poor, to help the persecuted and victimized Christians of Pakistan — Jesus Christ will accept the sacrifice of my life. I want to live for Christ and I want to die for Him. … Many times the extremists wanted to kill me, many times they wanted to put me in prison, they threatened me, they harassed me and they terrorized my family. Even my parents, my mother and my father, were asked by the extremists few years ago to stop their son from continuing with his mission, this struggle to help the Christians and the needy. Otherwise they would have lost me. But my father always encouraged me. I said: ‘Until I live, until my last breath, I will continue to serve Jesus, to serve the poor humanity, the suffering humanity, the Christians, the needy, the poor.’”
These were not empty words or a coincidental prophecy. He was quite open about the fact that he knew he would die for his faith and his love of those who were persecuted. Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran, the President of the Vatican’s Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said that in their last conversation four months ago, Bhatti told him, “I know that I will die assassinated, but I lay down my life for Christ and for inter-religious dialogue.” Cardinal Tauran added that Bhatti died as an “authentic martyr.”
The bishops of Pakistan agree with Cardinal Tauran’s assessment. In the meeting of the Pakistani Episcopal Conference next week, Bishop Andrew Francis of Multan will urge the entire episcopate to recommend that the Vatican declare Bhatti a martyr who died out of hatred for the faith. “Bhatti is a man who gave his life for his crystalline faith in Jesus Christ,” Bishop Francis said. “It is up to us, the bishops, to tell his story and experience to the Church in Rome, to call for official recognition of his martyrdom. … [His death] has been a grave loss, but we Christians in Pakistan want to transform the death of Shahbaz Batti into a prophecy of the Resurrection.”
Pope Benedict wrote in his 2008 encyclical on Christian hope,, “In truly great trials, where I must make a definitive decision to place the truth before my own welfare, career and possessions, I need the certitude of that true, great hope [for eternal life with God in heaven]. For this too we need witnesses—martyrs—who have given themselves totally, so as to show us the way—day after day. We need them if we are to prefer goodness to comfort, even in the little choices we face each day—knowing that this is how we live life to the full.” Shahbaz Bhatti was that type of witness who shows us that way to the fulfillment of the great hope, inspiring us to remain faithful not only under great duress, but also in the “little choices” we face this Lent.
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