On a lonely desert road outside of the Jordanian capital Amman, Joseph Fadelle finds himself with a gun pointed at his chest by his uncle, who is flanked by Joseph’s four angry younger brothers. They demand that Joseph reconvert to Islam and denounce Christ if he wishes to save his life and save his wife and children from dishonor and poverty. They promise to restore his former privileged status and wealth if he will take up his old name, return with them to Baghdad, and never again profess his Christian faith.
Joseph refuses. It’s December 22, 2000, almost thirteen years since he found faith in Jesus Christ through the help of Massoud, a simple Christian farmer from a village near Mosul. Massoud, with whom Joseph shared a barracks room during his military service, lived his Christian discipleship quietly but visibly: humble, patient, and, despite the verbal abuse he suffered from his roommate, always charitable and peaceful, even though he was almost twenty years Joseph’s senior. This attitude ultimately led to friendship, and eventually to Joseph’s conversion.
The trigger was indeed pulled on Joseph, but he miraculously survived the hail of bullets. He was left for dead at the side of the desert road and somehow made it to a hospital where he was treated for his wounds. He eventually made it to Europe and today lives with his wife and children in France. This true story, told by Joseph Fadelle himself in The Price to Pay (Ignatius Press, 2012) shows that even today Christian discipleship may mean risking – or losing – one’s life for Christ. In areas of Iraq and Syria controlled by the Islamic State, Christians are literally losing their heads because of their faithfulness to Christ. They are experiencing what Jesus warned us of: “An hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God” (John 16:2).
What does this harrowing story have to do with teaching discipleship to our children? Why would the suffering of Christians in faraway lands be important for parents and educators in countries where we do not (yet) find ourselves in such a dramatic situation? My wife and I have told the story of Joseph and Massoud to our children, and we also share with them news about persecuted Christians around the world, because we want them to know the reality of what it means to be a Christian in today’s world. These stories teach a number of vital lessons.
The first lesson is friendship. Joseph Fadelle found Christ through his military colleague Massoud, who understood and followed the only route to a life lived in truth: divine friendship and human friendship. Discipleship is first and foremost a personal relationship with Christ; this intimate friendship must become the foundation of our life. Through Christ, we will be led to friendship with our neighbor, at whose door Christ knocks too. Jesus tells us: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:13–14). Massoud was willing to risk his life to guide Joseph patiently to the gospel.
Friendship with Jesus allows us to see people through his eyes and discover the longing and goodness of the soul of our neighbor. This is what happened to Massoud when he shared the gospel with Joseph in the Iraqi military barracks. In the most unlikely of places and circumstances, he was able to reach the heart of a man who showed every sign of hostility and prejudice toward him as a Christian.
The second lesson is faithfulness. Massoud was faithful to the clear and recurring exhortation to discipleship in the Gospels: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20). This exhortation is directed at every Christian, no matter when or where. Massoud courageously answered this call in a context where this might have meant death. Not all of us are being asked for such a radical act of discipleship, but this example should remind us to remain faithful to our calling at all times, even when the tides of the times are against us. We must be ready to give our all – including our lives – in order to be faithful to our vocation, especially our calling to spread the gospel to all corners of the earth.
Pope Francis underlined this in his homily during a Mass celebrated for over three million youth from around the world gathered on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro in July 2013:
Where does Jesus send us? There are no borders, no limits: he sends us to everyone. The gospel is for everyone, not just for some. It is not only for those who seem closer to us, more receptive, more welcoming. It is for everyone. Do not be afraid to go and to bring Christ into every area of life, to the fringes of society, even to those who seem farthest away, most indifferent. The Lord seeks all – he wants everyone to feel the warmth of his mercy and his love.
“Going,” “teaching,” “observing,” and “all” are central words of Christ when he calls us to discipleship. These words make us realize that living the gospel cannot be a halfhearted affair, because it means faithfully going to all, teaching all, and observing all. Such faithfulness has a clarity that is refreshing and liberating; it should be our starting point for teaching Christian discipleship to our children and young people. It invites them to focus on the essential question as they develop their personality and prepare for their vocation in the world: “What does it mean to be human?”
This brings us to the third lesson: formation. To find out what it means to be human – a lifelong task – we need to learn, and teach our children, to see the world through the eyes of God. This is why dedicated study of scripture should be an integral part of every Christian’s education. It was Massoud’s knowledge of scripture that enabled him to reach Joseph and open up a whole new perspective to a hardened and blinded heart. When we learn to see through the eyes of God, we will understand the created order he gave us and our place in that order. We will learn what it means to be human. Few have expressed this better than Pope Benedict XVI:
Charity calls the educator to recognize that the profound responsibility to lead the young to truth is nothing less than an act of love. Indeed, the dignity of education lies in fostering the true perfection and happiness of those to be educated. In practice “intellectual charity” upholds the essential unity of knowledge against the fragmentation which ensues when reason is detached from the pursuit of truth. (Address to Catholic educators on April 17, 2008 in Washington, DC)
As disciples, we must dedicate our life to the pursuit of truth. But we can only do so if our hearts and minds have been so formed that we are able to stand upright in a world that is utterly confused, a world that has become enslaved to its passions, to the trends of the day, and to the violence which ensues when faith is detached from reason, and reason is detached from faith. How else can we explain some of the extremes of our age: abject poverty, rising ideologically inspired violence, the sexualization of society, the killing of the unborn, and the breakdown of families? G. K. Chesterton rightly points out that Christian discipleship “is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.”
In my own case, I cannot thank my parents enough for refusing to allow my siblings and me to conform to the popular trends of our times. Instead, they immersed us in a profoundly Christian culture full of beauty and wisdom, resplendent with the unity of knowledge about which Benedict XVI speaks. This happened through regularly attending church, praying together as a family, reading good literature, playing and listening to classical music, and sitting down together for family meals, which became occasions for conversation about current events. We also learned about chastity and the sanctity of marriage, and how self-control and self-giving lead to profound freedom. All this allowed us children to be formed in the good, the beautiful, and the true; it freed us to shape our lives according to what we were meant to be, rather than what either our passions or the latest fashions might push us to be.
When in 2012 my wife and I founded a new high school, the Schola Thomas Morus, in our hometown in Austria, the school’s founding principles were clear from the start. It was to be a school with a living faith, with formation in the classical virtues, and with a rigorous curriculum that teaches children how to think, how to understand, and thus how to learn. These are the necessary attributes for young men and women entering the world to take their place of responsibility and service for the good of society. They will succeed in this only if they have grasped the reality of the created order and accepted it, rather than wanting to manipulate it according to the ideology of the day.
Few saints have understood this better than Sir Thomas More, for whom our school is named. Thomas More lost his life for refusing to give in to the whims of his king and country in violation of God’s order. As he put it in his last words before dying by the axe: “I die as the King’s faithful servant, but God’s first.” His son-in- law reported that on one occasion he gave his children the following encouragement:
If you live the time that no man will give you good counsel, nor no man will give you good example, when you shall see virtue punished and vice rewarded, if you will then stand fast and firmly stick to God, upon pain of life, though you be but half good, God will allow you for whole good. (Quoted in William Roper, The Life of Sir Thomas More)
Following More’s example, we must foster in children the desire to pursue the truth with a listening heart, one that applies reason and is guided by a living faith. Our families, our schools, and our churches should all be places where children receive this kind of formation – an education that sets all we learn and do in the light of Christ.
This brings me back to Joseph and Massoud, whose most important lesson on Christian discipleship might all too easily be overlooked. It’s a lesson taught as well by the increasing numbers of Iraqi and Syrian Christians, young and old, who are being told by fellow human beings to renounce their faith or else lose their lives by the sword. In the face of these threats, their answer is, “You can take everything from us, even our lives, but you cannot take away our faith in Jesus Christ.” What Joseph and Massoud knew, and what the heroic Christian martyrs testify to today, is that our true home is in heaven, where a loving Father is waiting for us. This certainty is what gives a disciple of Christ such an inner freedom on his or her earthly journey. Such freedom is ultimately the greatest gift we can give our children.