Psalms 71:1-2; 3-4a, 5-6ab, 15ab and 17
An old friend and I were speaking recently about the rise of violence against religion throughout the world today. As younger men we were both actively committed to the peace movement and subsequent dialogue among faiths that "religious" people encouraged. Were we just too idealistic? As my friend pointed out at the end of the conversation with a sigh, "People die in the name of religion everyday!" And I sadly had to concur.
My thoughts wandered back to that conversation as I read the gospel assigned for today. As I read my focus fell on the person of Herod Antipas rather than John the Baptist. What motivates a perpetrator to kill a person of faith? What motivates a whole ideology to slaughter those who disagree with it? The early Christian community considered John the Baptist a great figure. Jesus speaks of John as the "last of the prophets" and considered John’s baptism of repentance as a sign of the coming of God’s own Kingdom. It is obvious reading Mark’s narrative that jealousies, envy, fear and lack of moral courage motivated Herod to take John’s life.
Jealousy, envy, fear, and lack of moral courage tend to characterize most of the martyrdoms that have taken place before and since.
Take for example Passionist Bishop and Martyr Eugene Bossilkov, CP. Bishop Bossilkov was born on November 16, 1900 in a small town in northern Bulgaria called Belene. He came from peasant stock, but being attracted to the Passionists who had been missionaries in that area since the 1700s, he joined them. Studying in Passionist seminaries in Belgium and Holland, he professed his vows in 1920 and was ordained a priest in 1926. After doctoral studies in Rome, he returned to Bulgaria in 1933 where he served both as his bishop’s secretary and then pastor of a parish. When his bishop died after WW II, Eugene Bossilkov was ordained Bishop of Nicopolis (of Northern Bulgaria) in 1947 just as the Stalinist purges behind the Iron Curtain were gaining strength. Between 1947 and 1951 Bishop Bossilkov, true to his Passionist vocation, encouraged his people to remain faithful and to know that in all their sufferings they shared in the Passion of Jesus.
Finally in mid 1952 mass arrests of church leaders began. On July 16th of that year, 40 priests, religious and lay leaders were rounded up and arrested. In the midst of them all was their Bishop, Eugene Bossilkov. Family and friends reported that all during his incarceration Bishop Bossilkov remained faithful to the Gospel despite physical, emotional and mental torture.
One day his niece, a religious, came to the prison to retrieve a basket she used to deliver supplies to him. The basket was returned to her untouched. She was stunned. When she questioned the guard as to what happened to her uncle the Bishop, she received silence. One guard, however, wrote on a small slip of paper that her uncle had been shot a few days earlier and his body disposed of – nowhere to be found. The guard returned to her the Bishop’s bloody shirt and a cassock.
It was not until 1975 that Paul VI received verbal confirmation of Bishop Eugene Bossilkov’s death from an official.
John the Baptist, a little known Passionist Bishop, and all the thousands of unnamed persons of faith, both Christian and non-Christian, who die due to jealousy, envy, fear, and lack of moral courage. What would Jesus think; Jesus himself who died for those same reasons?
Patrick Quinn ([email protected]) is the director of Planned Giving at the Passionist Development Office in Chicago.