Picture the city of Rome, where a 10th century basilica stands on a small island in the middle of the Tiber River. The Basilica of St. Bartholomew on the Island, founded by Otto III at the close of the first century, contains within its walls the relics of St. Bartholomew the Apostle and St. Adalbert of Prague—both early Christian martyrs. At the close of the twentieth century, Pope John Paul II dedicated the basilica to the life and history of the New Christian Martyrs of the 20th Century. Now, resting besides the ancient relics, you can find memorials like the bible of Shahbaz Bhatti (1968-2011), the missal of Óscar Romero (1917-1980), and a letter written by Christian de Chergé (1937-1996).
With this image of old and new, united by a single theme that spans the centuries, Dr. Daniel Philpott launched into his Convocation Address, “What Persecuted Christians teach Us,” at Ave Maria University on September 1, 2017. In his address, Dr. Philpott, who is Professor of Politics at the University of Notre Dame and co-director of Under Caesar’s Sword, explained the various ways in which Christians around the world respond to persecution, drawing from their example a lesson for the students and faculty gathered to begin a new academic year.
Based on his findings, Philpott identified three ways in which Christians respond to persecution: survival, association, and confrontation. Of these three ways, he focused on strategies of association as instructive to American Christians, for whom martyrdom is not imminent, but who will most likely face what Pope Francis termed “polite persecution.” In the face of such persecution, Philpott advised adopting strategies of association, like the witnessing to religious freedom and the building of associations and ties with fellow Christians to counter the power of the persecutors. Such strategies can be seen in the examples of many of those commemorated at the Basilica of St. Bartholomew, like Shahbaz Bhatti, who served in public office and was martyred for his faith. Responses, “that manifest an authentic Christian faith through their construction of good…manifest the Eucharist,” Philpott said. These responses, like the Eucharist, which is Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, are a transformative response to persecution. In the face of evil, they bring about good, achieving a victory over sin. Philpott encouraged those gathered for Convocation to work towards such strategies of association, and he commended Ave Maria University for doing so in its lawsuit against the federal government over the HHS contraception and abortifacient mandate.
Interestingly enough, Vice President of Academic Affairs Roger Nutt also referenced the Eucharist in his remarks at Convocation. “An academic convocation such as this,” Dr. Nutt said, “is the University’s equivalent to the Church’s liturgical gathering around the Lord’s body and blood. It manifests our deepest institutional identity.” Going on, he explained: “Just as the Church gathers around the altar, at our Academic Convocation, and in the classroom, we assemble as a community to express our institutional commitment to the cause of truth.”
How appropriate that the Eucharist stands out as a guiding image as the University begins a new academic year. Gathering around the cause of truth, which can be found in the person of Jesus Christ, Ave Maria University sets out to educate a new generation of disciples wiling and prepared to witness to the truth of Jesus Christ and the redemptive power of the Eucharist.
“Many persecuted Christians around the world will not live to see the vindication of their cause,” Philpott concluded his Convocation Address. “Here, the Christian may take comfort and courage from what the great Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes teaches: that the goods that we construct in this life are burnished, transformed and placed on eternal display in the next.”