Religious Freedom and the Fellowship of Saint John the Baptist

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When my husband Prabhu and I decided to marry, it seemed all there was to surmount was the issue of approval of his Hindu parents. There was no talk between us about his conversion to Catholicism since I sincerely feared such a conversion would be ‘colorable’ (given that he was a devout Hindu) and therefore not an ideal foundation upon which to build a marriage. However, to his parents, it was a dishonor for their son to marry a Christian, who in their thinking is a person of low standing.

Things did not get better with time; in fact, they got worse until there came a point where I was convinced of the imprudence of marrying a person with no knowledge of the person of Jesus Christ. I called off plans to marry Prabhu, which left him devastated. However, by the sheer grace of God, Prabhu had a powerful encounter with Jesus, experiencing a genuine conversion that left many, including me, confounded. He was baptized Paul, after extensive formalities under a new anti-conversion law in force at the time.

As a consequence of his parents’ recalcitrance regarding Paul’s choice of bride, and their antagonism following his conversion, my parish priest advised us to register our marriage under civil law (which invariably in India has been a practice for couples marrying against their parents’ wishes) so that he would later bless our sacramental marriage in the church. Although disillusioned, we complied with the pastor’s directions to first contract a civil marriage. It turned out, however, that Paul’s parents filed objections to the marriage. After a hard-won court battle, we got registered as man and wife on 25th June 2003, a day after the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.

As an upshot, our successive attempts at the Sacrament of Matrimony with various parishes got frustrated by Paul’s parents using every means available to them (including the anti-conversion law) to pressurize pastors and the archbishop to not allow us the sacrament. One of them, a former chancellor of the archdiocese, threw us out for seeking the sacrament while being “already married” even though we had the reference of my parish priest who recommended this twofold matrimony. He said he may be willing to convalidate (regularize) our marriage, if at all. We found ourselves presenting our case before the archbishop himself through the chancellor. Sixty-six days after our civil marriage, our sacramental marriage was blessed on 30th August 2003, a day after the Feast of the Passion of Saint John the Baptist.   

Yet, it was not until fifteen years later that I realized our unique association as a couple, with the Baptist forerunner of Christ. During Religious Freedom Week (22-29 June), as I prayerfully ponder our connection, the parallels and the lessons from the life, death and times of Saint John the Baptist, here are a few insights that are given me:

Proto-Witness to the Sacrament of Baptism

Baptism during the time of John the Baptist referred to ritual cleansing that Jews were familiar with. His call to repentance to baptism by water was a ‘spiritual upgrade’ infusing ritual baptism with the dimension of personal conversion. Skepticism and curiosity arise due to the unsettling novelty of the baptism he preaches. He clarifies that while he baptizes with water, the one coming after him will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (cf. Matthew 3:11). “In John, the precursor, the Holy Spirit completes the work of “[making] ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC 718)

The Baptist’s own baptism can be understood to occur in utero as his mother Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit (cf. Luke 1:41) at Mary’s greeting (cf. Luke 1:43). Although their mission was the same, Jesus and John the Baptist did not draw up a mission plan to preach the Gospel together. Insisting on being baptized by John, Jesus says, “it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (cf. Matthew 3:15). John continues to preach even after Jesus’ ministry begins, each having his own disciples. Noting their unity of purpose despite contrasting styles, Jesus says, “[W]isdom is vindicated by her works” (Matthew 11:19).   

Witnessing the action of the Holy Spirit in the life of my husband, beginning with his dramatic conversion and baptism into the Catholic Church, was like being drenched afresh in the fountain of baptism that God was opening up to him. My zeal was re-ignited, making me yearn for righteousness as God desires as against my own idea of a domesticated Christian life.   

Attestation of the Sacramentality of Marriage

The sacramentality of marriage (and therefore the family and the sanctity of human life)—is the bull’s eye in the target of religious freedom that the hegemony of secular-sexual culture seeks to destroy. Here, the saying of Pope Saint John Paul II, “As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live,” holds ironically true—the collapse of the Christian society can begin only with the ruination of marriage from its state as the sacred bond between one man and one woman.

Saint John the Baptist’s mission in the Judean wilderness seems cut off from the goings-on in Herod’s life and rule. In reality, it is in response to it. Herod is on a construction spree, seeking to perpetuate his name through public buildings while wishing his private life (his marriage with the divorced wife of his half-brother) would not be criticized by his subjects or rebuked by the Baptist. On the other hand, John in the obscurity of the desert seeks to diminish himself so the kingdom of God may be established. To Herod’s insecurity, John’s ‘voice in the wilderness’ is drawing away those longing for the Messiah calling them to repent and reject the decadence bred by their ruler.   

The public square is the Christian’s courtyard. Although Paul and I initially took the Sacrament of Matrimony for granted as the Christian way to “get married,” only in unexpectedly being dragged into the public arena to fight for it did we recognize Christian marriage as a privilege granted by God to serve Him, and the preciousness of Baptism itself.  

Our marriage empowers us to consider that the “Christian family has an evangelizing and missionary task” (cf. CCC 2205); that “[a]uthority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family (the “natural society” of husband and wife) constitute the foundations for freedom, security and fraternity within society” (cf. CCC 2207). Nothing, therefore, whether public policy or permissive behavior, is exempt from the touchstone of God’s sovereignty. The Christian married life, lived insincerity, places within the reach of baptized persons, the basic safeguards against the erosion of religious freedom.

Pope Benedict XVI’s allusion to marriage in his reflection on the martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist drives home the message that “Christians in our own times […] cannot give into compromise when it comes to our love for Christ, for his Word, for his Truth. The Truth is the Truth; there is no compromise. The Christian life requires, as it were, the ‘martyrdom’ of daily fidelity to the Gospel; the courage, that is, to allow Christ to increase in us and to direct our thoughts and actions.”

The martyrdom of Saints John the Baptist (June 24), John Fisher and Thomas More (both June 22) were all in conjunction with their public stand in the defense of marriage.  

Paying for Faith with One’s Head

Decapitation is a commonality in the martyrdom of the Baptist and these English Saints from the time of King Henry VIII, who paid for their loyalty to God with their heads. In a sense, the literal loss of one’s head results from choosing to wear the ‘mind of Christ’ (cf. Philippians 2:5). Christians, the Body of Christ, live not for this world, but the afterlife. Saint Paul exhorts Christians to “be transformed by the renewal of [one’s] mind, that they may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (cf. Romans 12:2).

A proof of the supremacy of God’s will came through my husband’s experience before the court when his parents claimed him to be of unsound mind and therefore incapable of validly contracting a marriage. Unmindful that our married life together was at stake, Paul told the court: “Even if my marriage with Loreto does not happen, my marriage with Christ cannot be stopped.”

Jean-Pierre de Caussade provides a clue to the working of this transformed attitude in his Abandonment to Divine Providence—one’s mental faculties are to be submissive in service to the Divine Sovereign.  

When without reason [the mind] would disclaim this outward help [of divine action], the divine action shows it that such help should be received and adapted with simplicity in obedience to the order established by God, and that we should use it as a tool, not for its own sake but as though we used it not, and when deprived of all help as though we wanted nothing.

The Chosen Wilderness of Detachment

Let us go to him outside the camp, bearing the reproach that he bore,” writes the author of Hebrews (13:13)—an encouragement to the Christian ostracized from family, isolated in the workplace, or discriminated against as a citizen on account of religion. Embracing this spiritual martyrdom can yield solutions to the “hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6).

Apart from personal spiritual growth, choosing the wilderness helps one’s message to go out without fear or favor. Those seeking the truth retreat from the crowd to hear the message. Accompanied by an austere lifestyle, certain depersonalization in his self-identification as a “voice in the wilderness,” seeking to decrease while Christ increases (cf. John 3:30), the Baptist is able to stir the conscience of a society at a God-appointed time and manner.

Ongoing Preparation of the Way

Everyone waits for the ‘good times’—the Kingdom of God—although one does not yet know one’s Savior. In the days of the Baptist too, like it is anywhere today, people burdened by the tyranny of the government were placing their hope in a ‘change of the guard.’    

Away from the tumult, John the Baptist preaches an interior preparation, a ‘change of heart’ bringing oneself closer to the coming of the Messiah. True, God himself is to lead His people out of the wilderness to the promised land, but the way is through the repentant heart.  

Over the first ten years in our marriage, while well-wishers of my family waited for a change of heart in my in-laws, Paul and I discovered contentment in the fellowship of those who pointed us to Christ. We strove to witness through our lives—to his parents and others who believed Paul’s conversion to be coerced—the freedom and joy that comes from belonging to God. We hope that striving to heed the Baptist’s exhortation to “produce good fruit as evidence of [our] repentance” (cf. Matthew 3:8), will someday bring about the reconciliation of the entire family to Christ.   

I note an interesting symbolism from the line-up of statues on the façade of Saint Peter’s Basilica that has John the Baptist stand to the right of Christ the Redeemer, and the Apostle Andrew to the left, all overlooking the statue of Saint Peter in the square below—We must relate to our own through our nearness to Christ.

John the Baptist stands bearing a banner inscribed with his words of introduction of Jesus to Andrew and another disciple—’Ecce Agnus Dei’ (‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ John 1:35). Andrew, earlier a disciple of the Baptist, comes to be the ‘first called’ among Christ’s disciples. He then introduces his brother Peter to the “Messiah.”

Paul and I are blessed to find the Messiah in our life’s wilderness, imitating the Baptist in receiving the baton from those who love God, passing it on to who He sends our way.    

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