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Word on Fire
Thursday, Jul. 16, 2015 -- 12:00 AM

Recently, I had the privilege of spending four hours in the Sistine Chapel with my Word on Fire team. Toward the end of our filming, the director of the Vatican Museums, who had accompanied us throughout the process, asked whether I wanted to see the "room of tears."

This is the little antechamber, just off of the Sistine Chapel, where the newly-elected pope changes into his white cassock. Understandably, tears flow in that room, once the poor man realizes the weight of his office.

Papal memorabilia

Inside, there were documents and other memorabilia, but what got my attention was a row of albs, chasubles, and copes worn by various popes.

I noticed the specially decorated cope of Pope Pius VI, one of the longest serving pontiffs, reigning from 1775 to 1799. Pius was an outspoken opponent of the French Revolution and its bloody aftermath -- and his forthrightness cost him dearly. French troops invaded Italy and demanded that the pope renounce his claim to the Papal States. When he refused, he was arrested and imprisoned in Valence, where he died six weeks later.

In the room of tears, there was also a stole worn by Pius VII. He also ran afoul of the French, who, under Napoleon, invaded Italy in 1809 and took him prisoner. During his grim exile, he did manage to get off one of the greatest lines in papal history.

Napoleon announced that he was going to destroy the Church, to which Pius VII responded, "Oh my little man, you think you're going to succeed in accomplishing what centuries of priests and bishops have tried and failed to do!"


Both popes find themselves in a long line of persecution. In the earliest centuries of the Church, thousands were put to death by the Roman Empire.

In the fourth century, St. Ambrose was opposed by the emperor Theodosius; in the 11th century, Pope Gregory VII locked horns with Henry IV; in the 19th century, Bismarck waged a Kulturkampf against the Church in Germany; and in the 20th century, more martyrs gave their lives for the faith than in all previous centuries combined.

Aftermath of court decision

Why am I rehearsing this sad history? In the wake of the Supreme Court decision regarding gay marriage, a number of Catholics feel beleaguered and more than a little afraid from the manner in which the decision was framed and justified.

Since same-sex marriage is now recognized as a fundamental human right guaranteed by the Constitution, those who oppose it can be characterized as bigots animated by an irrational prejudice.

Justice Kennedy and his colleagues assure us that those who have religious objections to same-sex marriage will be respected, but one wonders how such respect is congruent with the logic of the decision. Would one respect the owners of a business who refuse to hire black people as a matter of principle? Would not the government be compelled to act against those owners?

Changes in society

Proponents of gay marriage have rather brilliantly adopted the rhetoric of the civil rights movement so as to force this conclusion. This is why the late Cardinal Francis George often warned against the incursions of an increasingly aggressive secular state, which will first force us off the public stage into privacy and then seek to criminalize those practices of ours that it deems unacceptable.

Until around 1970, there was, throughout the society and across religious boundaries, a broad moral consensus in our country, especially in regard to sexual and family matters. This is one reason why, in the 1950s, Archbishop Fulton Sheen could find such a wide and appreciative audience among Protestants and Jews.

But now that consensus has largely been shattered, and the Church finds itself opposed, not so much by other religious denominations, as it was in the 19th century, but by the ideology of secularism and the self-defining individual.

Take courage

So what do we do? We continue to put forth our point of view winsomely, invitingly, and non-violently, loving our opponents and reaching out to those with whom we disagree.

As St. John Paul II said, the Church always proposes, never imposes. We take a deep breath, preparing for what could be some aggression from the secular society, but we take courage from a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us.

The Church has faced this sort of thing before -- and we’re still standing.

Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org