Has there ever been a widespread (worldwide) persecution of Christianity since the times of the Arian heresy? Oh yes, there have been regions of persecution: behind the iron curtain, Spain, parts of Europe during and after the Protestant Revolt, the French Revolution.... All of Christianity in Europe (which was practically the whole of Christendom) was threatened, but the threat turned back at the battle of Lepanto. So I don't think there has been a worldwide persecution since the early centuries of Christianity.
I am no doomsayer, but it seems to me that a worldwide persecution of Catholicism could be in the not too distant future (next 20-100 years or so). While John Paul the Great was alive, his personal popularity, success in defeating Communism, and charisma made frontal assaults on the Church impossible. Pope Benedict XVI is popular with me and many Catholics no doubt - but does his popularity (and will that of his successors) extend to the masses?
There is much tension in today's society between the forces of good and evil. For one example, while technology is helping to win hearts and minds to the pro-life cause (3-D ultrasounds), technology is also furthering the culture of death and Utilitarianism (worldwide) with euthanasia, embryonic research, etc - and very few are even remotely concerned about this. Contraception continues to be viewed by the great majority as an intrinsic good.
Speaking the Truth about human sexuality is becoming a hate crime in Canada, (and it is not too far-fetched to see the same in America). "Secularism" is the new religion - championed by France and spreading everywhere.
The last gasps of hedonism in the Roman Empire spawned a great persecution of the Church in the early days of Christianity - yet it is those tired bodies who have not found fulfillment in carnal and earthly pleasures that turned to the Church but only after seeing the joy of the Christian martyrs.
Will the present civilization, which has found no satisfaction with the sexual revolution of the 60's, but is continuing to push personal pleasure at all costs, also (as did Rome) try to appease their unsatisfied carnal desires with public orgies and bloodbaths?
Some may say that the good news (here in America at least) is that the polls during the last election cycle showed people want 'morality' and thus voted against John Kerry and against homosexual marriage proposals in 15 states. Yet I don't take too much heart in this, because I get the feeling that people want government to take care of morality - they figured with Bush in office they didn't have to worry about taking stands or action. Not the case folks. While I certainly prefer our current president over the major alternative - I don't kid myself - he does not share my priorities for the country - there is a lot of lip service and a little action, but it doesn't pervade his outlook, personnel, or policies. Further, despite setbacks for the homosexual agenda in 15 states on election day, since then the legislature in one state and the courts in a second state have legalized homosexual benefits/unions/marriages. So the march goes on with no huge public outcry.
I am not naturally a pessimist - after all, the blood of martyrs is the seedplot of the Church. Further, I am comforted that though I may be weak and devoid of personal courage, I will be too old or too dead to be bothered about by any upcoming persecution.
Another sign of the coming strife is the growth and enthusiasm of the "new springtime" among the laity. As places like Christendom College grow and have more influence; as our bishops, clergy, and laity become more outspoken and work in society for the Truth; as the Catholics unify behind our Holy Father and the Truth - the present civilization will have to take notice and take a stand. For many years now, the disunity within the Church has made Catholicism seem to be an idle threat to the present Utilitarianism and hedonism. (Those orthodox individuals who were outspoken, bishops or laity, could simply be labeled as 'cranks' and not the face of the "future Church"). Once the present civilization truly realizes that the teachings of Christ and carried on by Peter, through John Paul, and now Benedict are the past, present, and future of the Church- then they must convert or persecute.
Again, I don't hanker much to those preach doom and gloom, but these thoughts keep coming back to me. Tensions generally build to a crescendo, then .... History shows these types of cycles. And yet the action of a Catholic should be the same whether in peace or persecution: a daily regimen of prayer, psalm, mortification, work, and joy! - in other words a striving for holiness and union with God!
Finally - and this is what started my ruminations to begin with - what role does the 2nd Vatican Council play in preparing Catholics for the future. The emphasis on returning to study and practice of early Christianity found in the writings of Vatican Council II - was this in inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Who knows that we may soon go through a universal persecution much like that of the early Christians?
I realize that some may say I have it completely backwards - that VII was part of the internal persecution or just a silly mistake. Yet I would argue that one of the most influential council participants and authors, became our sovereign pontiff for 26 years. Whether you believe he was a good governor of the Church or not, most would not argue about his holiness and prayer life. Could such a holy man be such a tool for the devil? I think not. I think God allowed John Paul the Great to be Peter for 26 years as an endorsement of Vatican II. The election of Pope Benedict XVI seems to further ratify that endorsement.
Finally, with respect to Vatican II - I believe it has been in many instances grossly misrepresented and misapplied. However, the future is bright - especially with the continuity and forthrightness of our present Holy Father. Let us pray for Pope Benedict XVI!
From the small holding in Bethune ...
Oremus pro invicem!