Those words could have been said many times throughout her history, for she has always been one step away from persecution from without and division from within. Our Lord told us to expect as much: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” But what exactly does this mean and how should Christians live in the world today? St. John Henry Newman, in his sermon “Wisdom and Innocence,” (1843) gives us the principles to understand and the encouragement to apply these timely words from our Lord.
From her inception, the Church has been vulnerable. Scripture compares us to sheep, newborns, plants (branches of a vine), a house, a body, a field, etc. None of these demonstrate strength or intelligence. We are told, in St. Paul’s First letter to the Corinthians that we were chosen for our weakness, our foolishness, or lack of standing and importance. It’s no wonder the world so often bullies, attacks, shames and tempts the Church, often with success. If this were not enough, Jesus tells us that within the field of the Church, the enemy sows his seed. All this should disabuse us of the belief that the Church should be big, wealthy, strong, successful, popular, flawless and at peace. Newman says, “Such was the Church of Christ in its beginnings, and such has it been in every age in proportion to its purity. The purer it has been, the more defenceless…Seasons of peace, indeed, have been vouchsafed to it from the first, and in the most fearful times; but not an age of peace. A reign of temporal peace it can hardly enjoy, except under the reign of corruption, and in an age of faithlessness. Peace and rest are future.” If we are surprised to hear these words or to face the persecution Jesus told us we would always face, then we need to take our noses out of the New York Times and put them into the New Testament. St. Peter warned the first Christians, and us, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you.”
So we are persecuted, weak, unimpressive sheep, and yet sheep have some noble qualities. First, they stay together. They have a bond of fraternity and feel safe when other sheep are around. They are greatly distressed when separated from their flock. Second, they know the voice of their shepherd and they follow it. We too must have these qualities – bound together in love with our brothers and sisters, following the voice of the Great Shepherd who protects us from danger and leads us to green pastures.
This Great Shepherd tells us that despite our weakness, we should not be helpless. We can and should be “wise as serpents” despite being as “innocent as doves.” What does this mean? Newman says, “He did not forbid us to defend ourselves, but He forbad certain modes [sic] of defence” namely, violence or sinful responses. Prudence tells us to flee temptation, to endure suffering, to gain self-mastery, to keep getting back up after we fall, to pray without ceasing. Newman says these modes of defense look like weakness and trickery to the world, which only understands physical strength and cannot make sense of self-control and all the wisdom of God.
These words from Newman were not hypothetical. He delivered his sermon when still an Anglican but on the verge of entering the Roman Catholic Church. For three centuries, English Catholics faced persecution, loss of property and martyrdom, and until the 19th century they were unable to hold civil office or obtain degrees in universities. Newman urged Christians to resign their cause, trusting in his Divine Providence.
We too must trust our Lord in the midst of tribulation. If we do, we will not be surprised and distressed by fiery trials, we will not lose our peace and live in fear, we will not cave when temptations arise. Instead, we will see persecution as an opportunity to sanctify our souls and those who call themselves our enemies. For we know that it is the world that is running, the world that is in fear, harassed by Satan and its own sinfulness. We will have the wisdom to see that our battle is supernatural, that Christ has already defeated death and sin, that the gates of hell shall not prevail against us.
These are dark days, but we have the light of Christ, thanks be to God.