The homily delivered at a St. Thomas More Society memorial Mass for assassinated Pakistani cabinet minister Shabaz Bhatti. The Mass was offered in the Sean O’Sullivan Chapel on March 7, 2011, Parliament Hill, Ottawa.
We come today to pray for a righteous man, the Honorable Shahbaz Bhatti, who died early, at age 42. The words of the Book of Wisdom comfort us: “Being perfected in a short time, he fulfilled long years.” He was “pleasing to the Lord [who] took him quickly from the midst of wickedness.”
There is much wickedness in Pakistan today. The Christian disciple is not asked to pretend otherwise. We pray with eyes wide open in the words of the Psalmist, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, no evil do I fear.” The Psalms teach us an ancient wisdom, namely that the righteous man is often opposed, and that in this world the wicked often prosper.
The martyr’s death of Shahbaz Bhatti is not something unique to our time or to his country. Christian disciples of every time and place have followed their Master to the Cross and shared in His passion and death.
A few months ago there was a ceremony to mark the twentieth anniversary of this Sean O’Sullivan Chapel, and Msgr. Liam Bergin, Rector of the Pontifical Irish College in Rome, gave an address. He spoke of two alumni of the Irish College. The first, Saint Oliver Plunkett, was Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. He was brought to Westminster Hall in London and tried for being a Roman Catholic, or treason as it was called then. He was hung, drawn and quartered on July 1, 1681—the last Catholic martyr to be executed in England. The second alumnus was Father Ragheed Ghanni, who graduated from the Irish College in 2003 as an international student, a native Iraqi. On June 3, 2007, after celebrating Mass at Holy Spirit Chaldean Church in Mosul, Iraq, he was murdered along with three subdeacons, killed in his car by a hail of gunfire.
Catholics are no longer killed by the British Crown. They are today killed by jihadists in Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan and elsewhere. One day, God willing, that too will stop, but there will be others who hate Christ and His Church and will visit violence upon her. Between Oliver Plunkett in 1681 and Ragheed Ghanni in 2007 there were martyrs aplenty, especially the mountains of them piled up during the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. In just a few weeks we shall mark the 30th anniversary of the assassination attempt on the soon-to-be Blessed John Paul II—a near martyrdom of the Successor of Saint Peter only yards away from the martyrdom of Saint Peter himself. The question of the Risen Christ to Saul on the road to Damascus never ceases to echo in the world: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Much later that same man, now Paul, the great evangelist of the nations, would write the words of our second reading: For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
The one who persecuted the Church reached the point of sacrificing himself to the end for that same Church. What changed the one who presided over the stoning of the Church’s first martyr, Saint Stephen, into the courageous witness who would suffer martyrdom himself? It was precisely the encounter with the Risen Christ.
In the face of death the Christian proclaims the truth of the Risen Christ. The Risen Christ was not an abstraction, or mere theological doctrine, to Shahbaz Bhatti. He knew that the Lord Jesus was at work in his life. He had a personal relationship with Him. He believed that his life was proceeding under the Lord’s Providence. He knew that the Risen Christ is the Lord of History. He knew that the time of his departure was close at hand; he knew that he had fought the good fight; he knew that his race was almost finished. He knew that his service in the cabinet would not be long; he knew that his enemies were already planning to send him to his grave. He knew all this, and yet faced it with serenity and courage. Why? Because he knew that the tomb does not have the final word, that the grave is not the final destination, that the Risen Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and that all who belong to Him will rise to eternal life.
He knew all this, and so on the day before his own assassination he was able to write the following to a friend: I personally believe that it is Jesus Christ who has once again bestowed unto me this responsibility and position with a special purpose and mission to serve suffering humanity, and I am determined to carry on defending the principles of religious freedom, human equality and the rights of minorities.
Yesterday in Saint Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict XVI confirmed that this good Catholic died as a martyr for religious freedom, speaking of him by name: I ask the Lord Jesus that the moving sacrifice of the life of the Pakistani minister Shahbaz Bhatti may arouse in people’s consciences the courage and commitment to defend the religious freedom of all men and, in this way, to promote their equal dignity.
The Church, even amid tears, rejoices in the courage and commitment of this latest martyr. Pakistan needs a government with this courage and commitment to defend religious liberty. The Muslim world desperately needs leaders with this courage and commitment, to listen to what every conscience must know, that to kill the innocent in the name of Islam is not only an offense against the sanctity of life but against the holiness of God.
We mourn Shahbaz Bhatti as a fellow Christian disciple, and for us Catholics, as a brother in the Church. You who serve in Parliament mourn too in a particular way for one who shared your vocation. To my friends who serve in public office I have said that the most important thing to decide—even when being sworn into office—is on what grounds you would resign. The politician who does not know his grounds for resignation has lost sight of what contribution he might make, what cause he might serve, what witness he might offer. The case of the martyred cabinet minister makes the point with solemn force: On what ground would you stand firm, if it were to cost you your life? The Christian disciple who does not know for what he would die cannot know for what he lives.
The patron saint of politicians is the sainted martyr Thomas More, the patron of our Society. Thomas More died under the law when the law became lawless; Shahbaz Bhatti died at the hands of lawless men for his efforts to establish religious liberty in law. The laws of men are meant to serve justice, but even at their best can only achieve it imperfectly. The laws of God are just indeed, and the justice of God will not be mocked. So we pray for that moment of which Saint John’s Gospel speaks: Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. We pray that the Lord will bring down His terrible, swift justice upon those who murdered Minister Bhatti, and that his blood be avenged.
Yet the same passage of Saint John’s Gospel teaches us that our justice is not divine justice; God’s answer to the shedding of blood is not to shed blood anew, but to offer the redeeming blood of His only Son: The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be.
The Lord Jesus speaks of the mystery of the Cross, and the mystery of the Cross was lived to its fullest by Shahbaz Bhatti last Wednesday. The Lord is on the Cross, and there also must be His servant. The grain of wheat has now died. It is planted in the ground along the other grains of wheat, from Paul of Tarsus to Oliver Plunkett, from Thomas More to Ragheed Ghanni.
The ground of Bhatti’s grave is now watered by the tears of his fellow Christians, and those who thirst for justice in Pakistan. Those who weep shed tears of sorrow and tears of fear. In God’s own time, and according to His Providence, the fruit will come. For us it remains to keep faith with the fallen. It remains for us to fight the good fight, for our race is not yet finished.
The Lord Jesus speaks of His death as the hour of glory, the manifestation of His love in the work of redemption. For Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian disciple, the hour of glory has come. We pray now that whatever sins he committed be forgiven him, that whatever purification remains be accomplished quickly, and that his eyes, which closed upon the violence of this world, may open upon the glory of the Crucified and Risen Jesus, in that special company of the saints reserved for the martyrs.
St. Thomas More, welcome him home.
St. Thomas More, pray for us.
Fr. Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and is chaplain of the St. Thomas More Society, an informal association of Catholic parliamentarians in Ottawa His last article for First Things was a review of John Allen’s The Future Church. His writings can be found here. The readings for the Mass were Wisdom 4:7-15, Psalm 23, II Timothy 4:5-8, and John 12:23-33