...and what they can teach us in our troubled times
Violence and the destruction of human life is the greatest tragedy on this earth. We are all made in the “image and likeness of God” and every life is precious and unrepeatable. The Catechism encourages us to speak out against bloodshed and do all we can to make it stop.
“Those who renounce violence and bloodshed and, in order to safeguard human rights, make use of those means of defense available to the weakest, bear witness to evangelical charity, provided they do so without harming the rights and obligations of other men and societies. They bear legitimate witness to the gravity of the physical and moral risks of recourse to violence, with all its destruction and death” (Catechism, 2306).
When discerning what we can do in the face of such senseless violence, we need to ask, “What did the saints do?”
In fact, a great number of saints were witnesses to violence. God raised them up precisely to confront the evils of their day. And the saints have witnessed violence in every style and stripe.
Basically all the early saints witnessed the horrors that accompanied the establishment of the Church, becoming themselves victims of the barbarity. Tales of the early martyrs are not light reading.
Then there’s war hero Joan of Arc, but she’s far from the only saint to testify to God’s love in the midst of the clash of nations or civil war. Perhaps the cause of Fr. Emil Kapaun will soon advance, as a modern example of a wartime saint. And we now have dozens of saints from the Spanish civil war of the 20th century.
Meanwhile Rita of Cascia wasn’t the only saint to see violence tear down even her own family.
Saints have witnessed — and worked against — violence of every kind. In light of World Youth Day underway in Poland, let’s look at the example of a saint dear to our young pilgrims, and two others who give us much to think about in the global political environment of our day.
Let us learn from their example and ask them how we can sow seeds of peace in a world at war.
Saint John Paul II
The young Karol Wojtyła was thrust into a world of hatred and violence with the invasion of Nazi Germany. Wojtyła and his father, after an unsuccessful attempt to flee to the east, returned to Kraków to find the Nazi flag everywhere. They retreated to their apartment and were now subject to one of the most terrible regimes in history.
The Nazis’ attempt to stamp out any remnant of Polish culture proved to have the opposite effect. Soon after the Nazi invasion, Karol conspired with his literary colleagues to have a poetry reading at a friend’s house. Karol and his group of friends knew that in order to keep Poland alive, they needed to preserve the arts. In particular, they focused on preserving Poland through the riches of its native language. This small group not only recited poetry but also performed classic Polish plays under the cover of night in the apartments of faithful supporters. Over the years, Poland had suffered much in the way of foreign control of its land, yet it was always culture and faith in God that kept Poland united.
Wojtyła knew that the response to hatred and violence could never be violence, but faith, love and beauty. Throughout his life as a priest, bishop and pope, Wojtyła worked for peace in the world by transforming culture.
Saint Josephine Bakhita
Born into a prosperous family in Sudan, Josephine Bakhita lived a carefree life with little suffering. That all changed when at the age of seven she was kidnapped by Arab slave traders, forced to walk barefoot and sold several times. She spent several years as a slave, often beaten by her owners. Bakhita wrote years later about the violence she experienced, being thankful to God that she was not killed.
“One day I unwittingly made a mistake that incensed the master’s son. He became furious, snatched me violently from my hiding place, and began to strike me ferociously with the lash and his feet. Finally he left me half dead, completely unconscious. Some slaves carried me away and lay me on a straw mat, where I remained for over a month….I thought I would die, especially when salt was poured in the wounds…it was by a miracle of God I didn’t die. He had destined me for better things.”
By God’s Divine Providence, Bakhita was sold to an Italian man who took her to Italy. While there she received religious instruction, was baptized Catholic and freed. She then joined the Canossian Sisters and spent her life assisting the religious community in various tasks, always welcoming visitors with joy.
When someone asked her what she would do if she ever met those who kidnapped her, she said without hesitation, “If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands. For, if these things had not happened, I would not have been a Christian and a religious today.”
Blessed Miguel Pro
Forced to flee Mexico when he was a novice with the Jesuits, Miguel Pro continued his studies abroad and eventually became a priest. Many years past, but the Mexican government was still intent on persecuting the Catholic Church. Many priests were jailed, while others were simply killed.
When he returned to Mexico, this new persecution forced Miguel Pro to go underground and hide his identity as a priest, often going to people’s homes in disguise. In the midst of the violence and persecution, he strove to serve the sick and poor. He wrote in a letter:
“We carry on like slaves. Jesus help me! There isn’t time to breathe, and I am up to my eyebrows in this business of feeding those who have nothing. And they are many—those with nothing. I assure you that I spin like a top from here to there with such luck as is the exclusive privilege of petty thieves. It doesn’t even faze me to receive such messages as: ‘The X Family reports that they are twelve members and their pantry is empty. Their clothing is falling off them in pieces, three are sick in bed and there isn’t even water.’ As a rule my purse is as dry as Calles’s soul, but it isn’t worth worrying since the Procurator of Heaven is generous.”
He was eventually arrested and shot by a firing squad. However, his death signaled a watershed moment and gave new vigor to those opposing the Mexican regime.
We see from these three examples of faith that when faced with great violence, we must denounce it openly, but then work courageously by serving our neighbor. Peace begins in the home. Let us pray for peace, but also work for it in any way we can.
Saints John Paul and Josephine Bakhita, Blessed Miguel Pro, pray for us!