The gift of a patron saint is more than intercession for our woes. Saint Maximilian Kolbe reaches behind These Stone Walls with a call to action and contemplation.
“Devotion to St. Maximilian Kolbe helps us face prison bravely. It doesn’t deliver us from prison walls, but rather from their power to stifle our souls.” (These Stone Walls, Oct. 31, 2012)
I’m not entirely sure which came first. Did I decide on a title for this post and then the music played? Or did the music start playing and decide the title for me? I think it was the latter. Either way, since the moment I turned on my typewriter for this post, Eric Clapton’s “Knock, Knock, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” began playing on that relentless stereo in my mind, and it won’t stop until I type my final word. Maybe not even then. Anyway, I thank the great Mr. Clapton for lending me his title for a time. However relentless, it’s a good score for this post.
Even weirder than that, my patron saints keep leaving footprints on the paths inside These Stone Walls. Once a week, a sort of traffic report is generated and sent to me listing the titles of posts at which readers are landing. I’ve always wondered what to make of this. I’ll sit and ponder in front of this typewriter for days to bang out a post that I think is a masterpiece of Western literature while readers flock to something I wrote in a hurry five years ago.
Week after week, two older posts about TSW’s notorious patron saints keep showing up among the top ten posts being read anew. One is “In Honor of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Patron of Prisoners, Priests, and Bloggers.” The other is “Saints Alive! Padre Pio and the Stigmata: Sanctity on Trial.”
You might have noticed my quote about Saint Maximilian Kolbe that opens this post. It’s been three long years since I wrote it, and since then it has been posted on the cell wall where I
write. It’s sort of a reminder to keep my expectations in check.
The quote was part of a post for All Hallows Eve, the Eve of All Saints, three years ago. I feared when I wrote it that it might become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. I have engaged in much intercessory prayer over 21 years of unjust imprisonment. I have knocked on Heaven’s door imploring the intercession of the Communion of Saints to be delivered from this plight of unjust imprisonment.
But I cannot say my prayer was unanswered. Someone was sent to walk along this path with me, and it is of his footprints that I today mean to write. In “Of Saints and Souls and Earthly Woes” cited above, I wrote of a hard lesson I have learned about my patron saints:
“Saint Maximilian Kolbe and Saint Padre Pio inspire me not because I have so much in common with them, but because I have so little. I am not at all like them, but I came to know them because I was drawn to the ways they faced and coped with adversity in their lives on earth. Patron saints really are advocates in Heaven, but the story is bigger than that. To have patron saints means something deeper than just hoping to share in the graces for which they suffered. It means to be in relationship with them as fellow travelers. I don’t think we choose the saints who will be our patrons and advocates in Heaven. I think they choose us. In ways both subtle and profound, they interject their presence in our lives.”
A lot of readers were drawn to the idea that our patron saints choose us, and not the other way around. I have written a lot about what that means for us in dire straights, most especially in a post entitled, “Suffering and Saint Maximilian Kolbe Behind These Stone Walls.” It presents the weird history of how he has interjected himself into my life, and then through me into the life of another in the most mysterious and powerful way. That very special story requires an update.
TAKE, LORD, RECEIVE, ALL MY LIBERTY!
What is the role – not to mention the goal – of this Patron Saint sent to walk this path alongside me? My prayer and sense of mission for all this time behind prison walls has been to beg the Lord not to let me die in prison in the hands of the tyranny of false witness. But today it strikes me that for all this time I have entrusted that petition to the intercession of a saint who himself died in unjust imprisonment in the hands of some other tyranny. So when you go knocking on Heaven’s door, be prepared for an answer you might not have expected, and be aware of who’s standing beside you.
It’s hard to believe it’s been six months since Ryan MacDonald wrote my epitaph in his distressing analysis, “For One Priest, A Fate Worse Than Dying in Prison.” From my perspective, there aren’t many fates worse than dying in prison. Since Ryan wrote that post, a number of readers have written to me with letters of support. Some include a sentiment that leaves me with mixed feelings. It usually goes along the lines of “Judging from your more recent posts, you seem to have become resigned to your fate. Others have suggested, “You’ve done a lot of good there. Maybe God put you there for a reason.”
I know the writers mean well, but not so fast, folks! God did not put me here. I was put here by sin, by self-righteous greed and false witness, by prosecutorial injustice, by a contempt for priesthood that has crept into our culture like a poison vine spreading a moral panic against – and even within – the Catholic community. God did not do this. Men did.
But I’m not ready to raise the white flag of surrender just yet. I’m still in the ring with gloves on. We still have an active appeal before the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. It’s slow going, and I’m not sure of where it will leave us. It’s now an appeal for the right to appeal, a step which the last judge in the case denied us. If our legal team wins this round then we have yet another one after it, and I do not have the resources to continue. Judge Joseph LaPlante’s ruling in our last appeal effort left my long hard fought defense bankrupt.
The only decision I have made is to stop appealing for funds to continue this one-sided effort against the State’s seemingly limitless resources to undermine justice. I have come to believe that no Catholic priest can receive justice in a U.S. court of law right now. The rhetoric, the witch hunt, the media bias, the agenda-driven manipulations are all stacked against us, and our shepherds just want out from under this millstone.
My mindset is one of neither surrender nor defeat, nor is it “resigned to my fate.” I’m not sure what exactly to call it, but I once wrote of a similar set of agendas with a very familiar outcome in a post entitled “Catholic Scandal and the Third Reich: The Rise and Fall of a Moral Panic.” It’s an important post because it not only tells the story of a similar time, but it’s also a time from which came the very patron saint God sent to me in this time. I’ll get back to that in a moment.
And as you know, that same Patron Saint was sent to Pornchai Maximilian Moontri, whose own quest for justice tempered by mercy has also been ongoing. We have recently published a decision of the clemency board regarding his ongoing petition for Sentence Commutation having served 24 years commencing at age 18.
LIFE, LIBERTY, AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS
The outcome of this story is entirely beyond my control, and it is to that truth alone that I now surrender. After all this time fighting back, it feels strange and foreign to relinquish control. How that’s going depends on what day you ask me. I may in fact, as Ryan MacDonald forebodes, die in this prison. And, as Ryan alluded to in his post above, I could die here stripped of priesthood because of my inability to get a human judge to honestly review an unjust trial.
I find this position to be not so different from the plight of “Father Jim,” a good man and a good priest who wrote “On the Fatherhood of Bishops with Disposable Priests.” He, too was accused from decades past. He, too, asserts his innocence, and as a result he spends his years as a “senior priest” (most can’t actually retire) in canonical limbo. He is forced into exile, lives alone under a cloud of suspicion, and is unable to prove his innocence in a time when no one has to prove his guilt. He, too, is unsure of the fate of his priesthood because in the current milieu, merely being accused is enough for our undoing.
When I first heard of Father Jim’s plight, I felt consoled by the fact that at least he’s not in prison. Now I take that back. Father Jim recently learned that he has untreatable terminal cancer. So he’s in a prison of another sort, and may die there under a cloud of unknowing. In a recent, heartbreaking letter, Father Jim told me that he is resolved to offer what he now endures as a share in the suffering of Christ for me, that I may endure to the end. Not all my patron saints are in Heaven yet.
What he wrote left me devastated – for him and for me. I want Father Jim to fight on every front in the battle before him. I want him to fight for his life, for his priesthood, and for his good name. And I want him to have advocates like the ones I have, advocates in the form of Heavenly intercessors who will take up his cause. But okay, I admit it. The spiritually cynical could easily ask, “So what have they done for you lately?”
In my relationship with them – and in Father Jim’s relationship with them for I have turned him over to them – I can today rejoice in the fact that I have miracle workers on my side, and then kick back and await their miracles. Or I can ponder why they have inserted themselves into my life, and discern what it is that they expect of me. I can hope for the miracles – and I do – but I also feel compelled to discern the latter, and I invite Father Jim to join me.
Upon this Feast of All Saints, I invite all of you with patron saints in your life to join me as well in discerning what it is they ask of you. It is a most compelling story the way Saint Maximilian Kolbe has asserted himself during the worst of times in my life. You’ve read some of the story of how this happened in “Suffering and St Maximilian Kolbe Behind These Stone Walls.” It’s a story worth reading again, and it has some strange new twists.
One of them occurred over the last few weeks in a sort of three-part wave. Michael Fazzino, a TSW reader in Connecticut who has been a good friend to us in prison, recently sent some printed pages to Pornchai Moontri, who, you may recall, took the name “Maximilian” when he was received into the Church. My post, “In Honor of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Patron of Prisoners, Priests, and Bloggers” tells the story (with some great photos) that led to that conversion. It’s quite a story!
What Mike Fazzino sent were several pages printed from “Google Images” using the search query “Maximilian Kolbe quotes.” (Try it, but omit the quotation marks in your query). The result was four pages of postage stamp-sized images, ten across and twelve down, of Saint Maximilian. The result is wonderful, and evidence of the great depth and wide reach of the graces that came from his life of sacrificial witness, especially in prison.
Pornchai was enthralled with these images. He spent an hour looking carefully at each one. Then suddenly the very air in this cell changed. Pornchai looked up from page three of the search results and stared at me. Then he handed me the page. Three quarters of the way down, nestled in the midst of hundreds of images of Maximilian Kolbe was Pornchai himself in a photo from the Home Page of MercytotheMax.com.
Alas, after all I have written about Saint Maximilian, I am not to be found there anywhere. Only Pornchai! In fact, he is the only prisoner in the world who appears among these images of our patron saint! I use the pronoun, “our” because that is really how it is. Saint Maximilian came to me, and I was the conduit through which he came to Pornchai Moontri. This is one of the “good things” that readers say have happened here, and it’s the greatest of the good things. At Auschwitz, Maximilian sacrificed his life to save another. I have only been asked to share a patron saint. See? Things are looking up already!
As I marvel over the images sent by Mike Fazzino, I see, not me, but the footprints of These Stone Walls. Some of our sliders are there. On the row of images just below Pornchai’s photo appears my good friend, Father Richard John Neuhaus, and Saint John Paul II is there, as is Saint Maria Faustina, the Saint of Divine Mercy. I have written of all of them. Below Pornchai’s photo appears the cover of Father Michael Gaitley’s book, 33 Days to Morning Glory that became a tool for our Marian Consecration that I wrote of in “Behold Your Mother!”
Then came on the next day a letter from TSW reader Helen Schultz. She included a printed “real time” screen shot of The Chapel of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament at Marytown, the National Shrine of Saint Maximilian Kolbe. The shrine maintains a camera with a round-the-clock opportunity for Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for those who cannot physically be present. The screen shot is now on our cell wall.
Then on the day after that, Pornchai received a note to come to the prison Chapel the next morning to sign for “religious property.” Kathleen Riney in Texas creates the most magnificent rosaries I have ever seen. While Saint Maximilian was quietly inserting himself behind these stone walls, Mrs. Riney had been handcrafting an heirloom rosary for Pornchai in honor of his patron saint. It was “out of the blue” and I don’t know what prompted her to do it, but it’s breathtaking. The rosary bears the very same medallion image of the saint that I spotted just the day before in the row of images just above Pornchai. The photograph does not do it justice – not even with Pornchai in it!
We do not choose our patron saints. They choose us. They choose us to emulate them, to be their bonds of connection on this long and arduous road upon which they journey with us until we find ourselves – still in their company – knock, knock, knockin’ on Heaven’s door.
“No one in the world can change truth. What we can do and should do is, to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is the inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs of extermination camps there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we ourselves are defeated in our innermost selves?” (Maximilian Kolbe, Prisoner No. 16670, Auschwitz, 1941)
Update for the Week