Anyone who tries to read the Hebrew Scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament, discovers from page one that conflict, greed, jealousy, and violence begin to spill like an ugly ink that flows from the human heart into the larger societies in which we live. At the same time individuals are lifted up that make us say: “Wow!” They live in the midst of the same world as we, but, as Jesus said, without being of the world.
In the 8th century BC, comes the story we read in the book of Tobit. Tobit was a righteous Israelite of the tribe of Naphtali living in Nineveh after Sargon II had deported the northern tribes of Israel to Assyria in 721 BC. In this fascinating story which combines Jewish piety and morality with folklore we walk alongside part of the life story of a man who had before deportation in his younger years been uniquely faithful in his family to the worship of the Lord in Jerusalem, had tithed, and was known for his exceptional acts of charity to others.
After being deported to Nineveh he had been able to become “purchasing agent” for the king, Shameneser. However when Shameneser died and his son came to rule in his stead, violence and turmoil began to overtake Nineveh. Tobit, in his personal account at the beginning of the book, says: “whoever he killed I buried. For in his rage he killed many Israelites, but I used to take their bodies away by stealth and bury them.” Tobit was reported and went into hiding and eventually took flight to save his life and that of his family. Forty days later Sennacherib was assassinated by his sons and through his earlier contacts made when he worked for Shameneser he was able to eventually return home safely.
The struggle to live according to one’s religious beliefs is almost as old as history. I’d like to share the more recent story of Msgr. Vladimir Ghika who died of cold and hunger in a communist prison, and was beatified as a martyr in Romania on August 31, 2013.
Born on December 25, 1873 in Istanbul where his father was Romania’s ambassador at the Ottoman court, the young Vladimir was Orthodox. After studies in Toulous, Paris and Rome’s Dominican College, he was received into the Catholic Church on April 15, 1902. Pope Pius X, whom he knew personally, persuaded him to remain a layman and not seek ordination so that he might evangelize more effectively among non-Catholics. From that moment on Ghika’s life played out on the world stage as a bringer of light and hope for entire countries.
He began by aiding the sick in Thessaloniki, Greece, founded Romania’s first free clinic, hospital and sanitorium, and then returned to France to care for the displaced and wounded during World War I, after which he helped restore France’s diplomatic ties with the Holy See.
Ghika was then ordained in Paris in 1923, and traveled widely in Europe, Asia and the Americas as a representative of Pope Pius XI. At the outbreak of World War II he returned to Romania to organize relief for refugees and bombardment victims. When the communists seized power he was advised to leave the country, but he refused to do so, saying, “If God wants me here, then here I shall remain.” He was arrested in 1952 and survived more than 80 violent interrogations before being sentenced to three year’s incarceration at Romania’s infamous Jilava prison. Near death, in describing his time in prison, he declared, “Nothing is more precious than being jailed for Jesus Christ. The prison is holy, and we didn’t even suspect it.” Ghika died on May 16, 1954.
Archbishop Ioan Robu of Bucharest said that Ghika would represent many other unknown and unrecognized Christian martyrs who died in Romania during four decades of communist rule, which ended in December 1989. “Martyrdom,” the Archbishop reflected, “isn’t just a phenomenon of Christianity’s first centuries—people gave their lives for the faith in recent memory and are still doing so in large numbers now.”
What is it that even in the midst of the storms of time makes us realize that life and history are not a blind process at the mercy of physical forces and the malice of people and nations? According to Blessed James Alberione, it is faith in Providence. “When this faith in Providence is alive, the entire meaning of human history is clearly defined, elevated and profound. It is God who makes all things converge, rather than a chance succession of intertwined passions and individual interests. Through faith in Providence we discover the God who cares for great and little things…. From creation to the end of time, life is guided by the light coming from eternity.” (James Alberione, Thoughts, © 1982, pg 33).
The sweep of history from the beginning to the closing chapters is in the service of salvation which flows from Jesus Christ, the Center of history. Inserting himself into history at his birth, the Son of God came to bring creatures into the life of God. Now through the Holy Spirit, Jesus continues in us that which he began. On the last day he will stand at the head of the nations to worship his Father in the eternal Kingdom which is his and to which all kingdoms shall forever bend the knee.
By Sr. Kathryn J. Hermes, FSP