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Saints who fought abuses in the Church

San Pedro Damiani

Public Domain

Meg Hunter-Kilmer - published on 06/05/21

While the Church, as Bride of Christ, is holy, her members are fallen men and women.

With the news of the discovery of a mass grave containing the remains of 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School (a Catholic boarding school for Indigenous children in Canada), Catholics in Canada and abroad are once again wrestling with the knowledge that Church leaders have been complicit in evil throughout our history. We live in the tension of knowing that the Church is holy (because she springs from the heart of Christ) and yet her members are fallen men and women, from the saints down to the gravest of sinners. It is imperative that we recognize the evils perpetrated by members of the Church, even in the name of the Church. But as we learn about the ugliness of abuse and slavery and prejudice, as we offer prayers of reparation, we can also cling to the witness of those men and women who fought evil within the Church as well as without. We can model ourselves on them, refusing to stand by in silence when we see injustice perpetrated by other Catholics, even by priests, religious, and bishops.  

St. Peter Damian (1007-1073) was an Italian Benedictine monk who lived in a time of great corruption among clergy, who were often guilty of simony and fornication (with both men and women). Indeed, both of these offenses were committed by the pope himself during Damian’s life. Regardless of the retaliation he might expect from Rome, Damian wrote with great passion against these evils, particularly insisting on priestly celibacy. He also frequently worked to reconcile antipopes and schismatic bishops to Rome, especially as a cardinal.

Servant of God Patricio de Hinachuba (d. 1706) was chief over all the Apalachee people in what is now Florida. Bilingual in Spanish and Apalachee, Hinachuba wrote with great diplomacy to the Catholic kings of Spain, complaining about the exploitation of his people and the abuse of their land. Hinachuba also kept Spanish soldiers in check. On one occasion, when a Spanish sergeant had struck an Apalachee child for playing too loudly, Hinachuba took the boy and his people to the home of the sergeant and demanded that the man apologize not only to the child and all the Apalachee but to God himself for having struck one of the children Jesus found so dear; after some persuasion, the Spaniard complied. When the Creek attacked their mission at the instigation of the English, Hinachuba and another chief (Servant of God Andres) were ordered to spit upon the cross; when they refused, they were beaten and then drowned, all the while speaking of how eager they were to go to heaven.

Venerable Ignacia del Espíritu Santo (1663-1748) was a Filipina-Chinese woman living in the Philippines. Though she felt called to religious life, it was illegal at the time for Filipinos to enter religious orders (even the one that had been operating in the Philippines for 60 years). Ignacia refused to be deterred by these racist policies, choosing to live an unofficial religious life with other Filipinas. After nearly 50 years, these women were finally given approval and the Sisters of the Religious of the Virgin Mary became the first order for native Filipina women. This accomplished, Mother Ignacia stepped down as superior and lived the rest of her life as a simple Sister.

Venerable Felix Varela (1788-1853) was a Cuban priest who advocated for the independence of Latin America and the end of slavery, despite living at a time when many priests, bishops, and even religious Sisters owned enslaved people. He was vocal about his convictions that Black and Indigenous people had human dignity and that Spanish colonies had a right to govern themselves; this earned him a death sentence, which he avoided by fleeing to New York. There, he spent the rest of his life working for human rights, particularly those of enslaved people and immigrants. 

Blessed Pavel Peter Gojdič (1888-1960) was a Ukrainian Catholic monk and bishop, serving in Slovakia. He was outspoken in defense of the Jewish people, particularly after they were ordered expelled from Slovakia. This order was promulgated by the collaborationist president of the Slovak Republic, Fr. Jozef Tiso, whose crimes against humanity led Bishop Gojdič to argue that he ought to be laicized or compelled by Rome to resign as president. Bishop Gojdič’s loud support of Slovakian Jews led many of his priests to call for his resignation as bishop; when he complied, he was assigned to another diocese. There he continued to work to save Jews, including by receiving them into the Church. He’s credited with saving at least 17 Jewish lives. Though he survived the Nazis, Bishop Gojdič’s ministry led to a life sentence under the Communists; the many letters written by Jews who were grateful for his work had no effect on this sentence and he died in prison.

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