In the wee hours of a Sunday morning, May of 1654, Jacob Rolandus climbed out a bedroom window of his family’s home. He was fleeing the rectory, and the family, of his father, a Reformed Dutch Minister, so that he could freely practice his new religion, Catholicism. In the 17th century, neither Protestants nor Catholics were inclined to offer freedom of conscience to minors. Jacob was twenty-one; he wouldn’t enter his majority until age twenty-five. So he fled south on a borrowed horse, to the Catholic city of Antwerp.
Craig Harlow recovers this family saga in Conversions: Two Family Stories from the Reformation and Modern America (2011). Reading the tale five centuries later, even as a Catholic, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Jacob’s father, Timothy. The Reverend Rolandus was struggling to make his way as a preacher. A little rigid, he often quarreled with his congregations. So, unlike his own successful father, a highly regarded Protestant minister and a translator of the Dutch Bible, Timothy was assigned to progressively smaller congregations. Now the action of his son exposed him to a lifetime of ridicule, even ostracism. Small wonder that he pursued Jacob to the south, though he wasn’t able to apprehend his son.
After those unsuccessful attempts, Jacob and Timothy never saw each other again, though Jacob did repeatedly send letters home to his sister Maria. Like most new converts, he was convinced that, if his sister would ignore the lies told about Catholics and study with an open heart, she would convert to his new faith, and, hopefully, bring their parents with her.
Maria responded that, it had pleased God “to allow a cloud to descend upon your understanding.” For her, the words of the Bible were “holy and pure” but her brother had chosen a religion “embellished and imagined by flesh and imported by the devil.” Neither Jacob nor his sister could understand how the other could be so blind in choice of faith.
Jesus asked his disciples, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Lk 12:51). They’re not his most frequently quoted words, though they’ve certainly proved to be true. For believers, there are few sorrows that run deeper than religious ruptures within the family.
And sometimes those divisions aren’t even across denominational lines. Sorrow and strife can also be bred when religion is terribly important to one family member but not so much so to another. After sins themselves, the second most frequent topic in the confessional is perhaps the pain that religious differences cause within families.
Surely Christ didn’t come to sow mutual condemnation, distrust, and disappointment. Here are three points to remember when it comes to religious differences and our families:
First, your family was God’s first gift to you. Don’t sacrifice it if you don’t have to. When Our Lord spoke of division, he meant that the Gospel compels us to decide what truly counts, but faith and family both matter. Both are precious gifts of God. Discarding one or the other should be your last choice.
Second, no virtue more becomes a believer than patience. Indeed, patience is at the heart of what it means to be a disciple. We must trust that the Lord will act in the Lord’s own, good time.
And third, remember that the Holy Spirit works beyond the horizon of your sight, your understanding. In his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis is particularly helpful on this point. Since God is the origin of both truth and love, we should surrender to both; we should trust in both. He writes:
[I]f truth is a truth of love, if it is a truth disclosed in personal encounter with the Other, and with others, then it can be set free from its enclosure in individuals and become part of the common good. As a truth of love, it is not one that can be imposed by force; it is not a truth that stifles the individual. Since it is born of love, it can penetrate the heart, to the personal core of each man and woman. Clearly, then, faith is not intransigent, but grows in respectful coexistence with others. One who believes may not be presumptuous; on the contrary, truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us. Far from making us inflexible, the security of faith sets us on a journey; it enables witness and dialogue with all (§34).
Jacob remained a Catholic all his life. In fact, his father’s worst fear was realized. He became Father Jacob Rolandus, a Jesuit who served with distinction in Brazil. The society’s chronicles do note, however, that he never lost a tendency toward rigidness. He came by that honestly, as they say, but sadly as well.
Jeremiah 38: 4-6, 8-10 Hebrews 12: 1-4 Luke 12: 49-53