About 850 years ago there was an important Englishman named Thomas Beckett, who was the Chancellor, or prime minister, of England. This made him the most important man in the country, except for the king himself. Thomas had success, power, and prestige—but he knew something was missing. Then his friend King Henry II decided to install him as Archbishop of Canterbury, even though neither man was especially religious. Back then bishops were often appointed by national leaders, not the Pope—and Henry felt having his trusted friend in the country’s most important religious position would help him gain control over the Church. However, something completely unexpected happened: once in office, Thomas Beckett changed. He was no longer an ambitious, worldly man; instead, he took his new religious responsibilities seriously, prayed sincerely for God’s guidance, and began opposing the king’s immoral and illegal schemes. Thomas and Henry had once been very close, but now religion divided them, and the king became increasingly frustrated. In the year 1170, during a fit of anger, King Henry shouted, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” Taking this as a royal command, four of Henry’s knights went to the cathedral in Canterbury and murdered Thomas Beckett while he was saying Mass. The common people, and in fact, Catholics throughout Europe, condemned this wicked action, and Henry was forced to do public penance; Thomas was venerated as a martyr, and three years later was canonized a saint.
We often think religion should be a source of unity and peace, and this is the ideal—but sometimes it instead causes anger and division. Jesus knew this would happen, and He warned His followers of this very real possibility. Some people prefer the darkness of sin, and so the light of Christ’s truth makes them uncomfortable and resentful. This is the risk Christians take. Living out our faith may make us unpopular and unappreciated by others, but our primary responsibility is not to them, but to Jesus.
It isn’t always easy to do God’s will; instead of being praised by others, we may experience criticism, rejection, and even violence. About 600 years before Christ, Jeremiah (38:4-6, 8-10) was a very unpopular prophet—for he insisted the national disasters the people were experiencing were caused by their sins, and, he warned, there was no hope of recovery unless the nation repented. As a result, Jeremiah had many enemies—though there were a few who recognized the truth of his words. In his Letter to the Hebrews (12:1-4), St. Paul urges us to “persevere in running the race that lies before us. . . ,” for in this way we imitate Jesus Himself. He had much to suffer, but He received eternal glory; we are reminded of this so that we “may not grow weary and lose heart.” Living as a Christian is sometimes difficult and a struggle, and in the Gospel of Luke (12:49-53) Our Lord speaks of one of the ways this may be true. Religion not only unites people; it also divides them. Some persons reject God so completely that they will not accept those who do have faith; others sincerely but mistakenly insist on their own experience and understanding of God, and criticize or reject those who disagree with them. To stand up for what we believe may involve great sacrifices, including the loss of peace in our own homes and within our own families. Jesus recognized this very real possibility—but He nevertheless calls us to be faithful to Him.
Perhaps the most famous feud in American history was that between the Hatfields and the McCoys along the border between Kentucky and West Virginia. In the year 1878 there was a dispute between them over the ownership of a hog; this led to a twelve-year war between the rival clans in which twelve people were killed: three Hatfields, seven McCoys, and two outsiders (Raymond McHenry, The Best of In Other Words, #308). Feuds, disputes, and divisions within or between families are often foolish and sometimes tragic. These conflicts are also quite often unnecessary, but in the Gospel Jesus insists that there are times when conflict is necessary—especially those times when it results from being faithful to Him.
Have you ever had a disagreement or argument with someone in your family over a religious matter? Perhaps you’ve tried to talk your spouse into coming to church, but he or she considers your efforts to be nagging, and resents them. Maybe you’ve done your best to raise your children as good Catholics, but now that they’re older, they’re doing things you know to be wrong, such as abandoning the practice of the faith or committing the sin of cohabitation. Perhaps some of your relatives mock your religious values, or call you old-fashioned and refuse to take your beliefs seriously. These are all painful experiences—especially because of your love for the people involved. Jesus went through this same thing; some of His cousins—people He grew up with—refused to believe in or accept His mission, and a few even considered Him demented. However, this did not keep Him from doing His Father’s will—and if we’re truly His disciples, we have to imitate His example.
What should we do if our homes or families are divided over religion? The first and most important thing is to remember that our commitment is to Christ; our duties to God must come first, even if they complicate our relationships with others. Any “peace” we might gain in our families by selling out our religion is a false peace, of no lasting benefit to ourselves or to anyone else. Thomas Beckett discovered this truth in his relationship with King Henry; being faithful to God was painful and costly, but it helped him fulfill his God-given mission and gained him eternal life. Secondly, we must give a good example—not flaunting our faith or trying to impose it on others, but living it out in a quiet, dedicated, and even joyful way. We can hope that one day the people around us will finally realize that we have something to share that they truly need, and that our loving and non-judgmental example will inspire them to respond to God’s call. Lastly, we should always pray for those who reject, ignore, or misunderstand God—particularly those in our own families. Loving and persistent prayer has been known to work miracles; many times our prayers will make a difference in the end.
God wants us to give up neither our faith, nor our hope on behalf of those who do not share it. Our religious beliefs can be divisive, but being true to Jesus is the only path to everlasting life. Our faithfulness in traveling this path, no matter what the cost, can be a source of blessing not only for ourselves, but also for those we love.