If you doubt the work of God in your life, seek a Patron Saint whose life’s struggles resonate with your own. Look for perseverance over piety, and then start a dialog.
Looking for perseverance over piety when interviewing candidates for your patron saint might seem strange advice. I suggest it because – if my own experience is any measure – piety feels somehow disconnected from the chaos of the world in which I live. Perseverance, on the other hand, is something I never seem to have in abundance. When surrounded by evil, the image of piety in my patron saints is not something I can readily relate to.
How is it that for so many Catholics the question of evil eludes them? It should be readily understandable to Catholics, perhaps more than anyone else, that we could become targets of evil – both the evil that exists in the world and the evil that can fester and grow within ourselves. It is spiritually self-destructive that the traditional examination of conscience is fading from our experience as Catholics.
If you eat too many Twinkies, you will gain weight. That’s because the Twinkies are metabolized into your very being. If you believe, as I hope you do, that you have consumed the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, then He is also metabolized into your very being. It enrages evil that you are a Tabernacle of the Real Presence. To get you not to act like one is Evil’s career path.
And just as the original Real Presence faced spiritual warfare in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11) the assaults in our desert wilderness take many forms: sexual temptation, self-delusion, self-righteousness, arrogance, false witness, slander, political infighting, jealousy, self-aggrandizement. As evil festers, and as it grows, its target recipient is usually the last to know. And the evidence is clear that some Catholic priests have succumbed to its lure. They, too, are the last to know.
Why should we expect otherwise? In all the demands of the present #MeToo era, the demand that the Church straighten this out and root out the evil in its midst is the loudest, but it isn’t the most just demand. All the blustering of lawyers – like Boston’s Mitchell Garabedian – who have become millionaires while deftly exploiting Catholic scandal is aimed toward one goal: to keep the funds flowing.
Why isn’t anyone in the Church asking, “What can be done by us as a Church to support priests before they succumb to evil?” To fail to ask the question is to fail to accept that such evil is real. We treat it as psychological aberration or mere human weakness. I am here to tell you that evil IS real. If you doubt that, read “Pornchai Moontri, Bangkok to Bangor, Survivor of the Night.” The spiritual warfare into which we were thrust is ironic, insidious, relentless.
This battlefield lies before every Catholic whose eyes are open, and it especially awaits Catholic priests. Those who are blind to the existence of spiritual warfare are the ones in the most imminent danger. As the demonic Uncle Screwtape observed in The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis (Harper 1942, letter 12), “the cumulative effect of sin is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing…” How many priests have we witnessed being edged out into the nothing in recent years?
How many Catholics have edged their own faith out into the nothing? Remember the true story I told in my recent post about the infamous Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report? (And more on that next week!) A woman in Ireland was quoted in The Wall Street Journal stating that she is embracing atheism in response to the scandal.
She is removing her children from any exposure to Catholic education and practice. On their behalf, but without their consent, she is withdrawing them from over 1,500 years of their cultural Catholic heritage. She is separating her children from any opportunity to encounter Christ in the Eucharist. She is severing their most available path to salvation. And all the while, she accuses US of child abuse!
PATRON SAINTS AS ALLIES ON THE FIELD OF BATTLE
I have written a lot in these pages about the flaws of Catholic priests who find themselves falling – some justly and some not – before the unforgiving judgment of this world. In “Saint Michael the Archangel and the Art of War,” another post about one of our Patron Saints behind These Stone Walls, I wrote the following:
“A basic tenet of The Art of War is that victory depends not only on weapons, but on allies. Spiritual warfare is no exception. For those who disdain war, there are no conscientious objectors in spiritual warfare. It does not pursue those who have handed themselves over to evil. They have already reported to boot camp. Spiritual warfare seeks to subdue contributors to the good.”
When my friend, Father George David Byers wrote “Father Gordon MacRae & Pornchai Moontri: Captives of Irony Incarnate,” he addressed some of the irony he discovers at These Stone Walls. One of the meanings of irony in literature is “an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected.”
Sometimes only history can reveal the full impact of irony unfolding. Consider the example of another of the Patron Saints of These Stone Walls. On September 1, 1939, Poland was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany. It is a mistake to see this as ancient history because that belies our ignorance of history and dooms us to repeat it.
It was within our living memory. We tend to think that the time in which we live is so extraordinarily evil, and the evil incarnate around us so destructive, only because we lack a sense of the century from which we have just emerged.
On September 19, 1939, Conventual Franciscan Father Maximilian Kolbe was arrested and imprisoned in an attempt to silence his popular publication, Knights of the Immaculata. Over the prior three weeks since the invasion of Poland, over 700 friars from his order were forcibly deported by the Nazis. It is the agenda of evil everywhere throughout history to remove obstacles that stand between evil and the control of souls.
And when the Catholicism of those among the courageous resistors grew only stronger in the face of such oppression, the Nazi’s reached for another weapon of mass destruction: viral accusations of sexual abuse of children by priests. I documented this in “Catholic scandal and the Third Reich: The Rise & Fall of a Moral Panic.”
Back in Poland, Father Maximilian Kolbe spent just under three months in a Nazi prison camp. He was released on December 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. The following year, in December of 1940, Father Kolbe again published his Knights of the Immaculata magazine with a run of 120,000 copies distributed throughout Poland.
Predictably, he was arrested again by the Gestapo, treated with violent cruelty, then transported, first to Pawiak Prison in Warsaw, and then to Auschwitz. Eight months later, on August 14, 1941, he was executed after volunteering to take the place of – and secure life and liberty for – another condemned prisoner. I live in the shadows of this story. Be careful which patron saints you open your heart and soul to.
On August 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, the ashes of Father Kolbe’s cremated remains were scattered to the winds above Auschwitz. But the irony is that this all started with a Nazi effort to silence him. It ended up having the opposite effect. In the end, it was the Nazis themselves who were silenced while the pen and the voice of Maximilian Kolbe grew stronger in death than they had ever been in life. His example and his writings swept the free world and remain to this day a monument to faith and freedom inspiring millions.
The photograph atop this segment of my post is dear to my heart. It depicts Saint Maximilian Kolbe, our Patron Saint – both Pornchai Moontri’s and my own – sitting at his desk with his work in utter disarray and his correspondence in chaos. It was sent to me by TSW reader Claire Dion who wrote the guest post, “My Visit with Pornchai Maximilian Moontri.”
It is without a doubt the image of this saint that I can relate to the most. What you can’t see is the back of the photo upon which Claire wrote, “Does your desk look anything like this?” The short answer is “yes, it does.” Or at least it would if I actually had a desk. We live – and by that I mean sleep, dress, cook, eat, read, and type – within a 60-square-foot area.
When I am writing, everything is spread all over my bottom bunk. When I sleep I must pile it all up and move it only to be spread out again the next day. When Claire’s photo arrived, I held it up for Pornchai to see. “This is our Patron Saint,” I said. Claire wants to know if our cell ever looks anything like this. “Your bed does,” Pornchai shot back.
So if you have ever written to me, and have not received a reply yet, please just have a look at the desk of our Patron Saint above. I take great consolation from the fact that his faith was not necessarily reflected in a well-ordered life. But from that, I draw an opposite comparison. My chaotic life does not impose itself upon my faith. Maximilian and I are now comrades in arms. He also suffered the wounds of slander and false witness, wounds that, like mine, were not on his hands or his feet or his side, but on his heart.
THE PERSECUTION OF PADRE PIO
I wrote once about sharing an issue of the Catholic League journal with Padre Pio. Back in 2005, I was asked by Catholic League President Bill Donohue to write an article for Catalyst about being falsely accused. My November 2005 article was “Sex Abuse and Signs of Fraud.” When I received the long-awaited issue in the mail, however, I just about ignored my own centerfold article to read one on the front page about The New York Times slandering Padre Pio with accusations of sexual abuse.
The attack on Padre Pio by leaders in the Church is seen today as a clear example of spiritual warfare. His detractors were vehement. They systematically built a case against him with false witness, suspicion, blind ambition, jealousy, lust for power – all the usual snares used as the weapons of spiritual warfare.
This all made its way to the highest levels of Church governance. In 1923, the Holy Office declared that supernatural phenomena attributed to Padre Pio – and most specifically the stigmata – does not hold true. He was forbidden to offer Mass in public, and the faithful were urged to fall in line with denying any belief in his authenticity.
It would have been sad enough if his detractors and accusers had been enemies of the Church – as seems the case with The New York Times – but they were not. They were respected priests and bishops who brought to the ears of Rome a contrived, highly prejudiced and distorted view of Padre Pio.
And when the distortions failed to turn the heart of the Church against him fully, the weapons of mass destruction were hauled out. Padre Pio was falsely accused of the sexual abuse of women and of committing sacrilege in the confessional. It’s that story that The New York Times repeated in 2005, but the far more damaging stories were those that slandered the wounds that he bore.
Father Agostino Gemelli, a preeminent psychologist and university professor, told the Holy See that he had a close and well-studied acquaintance with Padre Pio. In official papers to Rome, Gemelli dismissed Padre Pio as a charlatan whose wounds were psychologically induced by religious fanaticism.
Father Gemelli never came to admit his arrogance or his prejudice. It turned out that his “well-studied acquaintance” with Padre Pio was but one 20-minute interview in which he set his mind and heart against Padre Pio and dismissed him as a fraud. In a rare instance of exasperated self defense, Padre Pio reacted to a charge that his wounds were psychosomatic and induced by looking too intently upon the passion of Christ:
“Go out to the fields and look very closely at a bull. Concentrate on him with all your might. Do this and see if horns grow on your head.”
From 1923 to 1926, the Holy Office received a steady stream of slanderous declarations against Padre Pio from Archbishop Pasquali Gagliardi of the diocese in which San Giovanni Rotondo is located. The accusations turned out to have no merit when investigated. In 1923, the Holy Office declared that supernatural phenomena ascribed to Padre Pio by many of the faithful do not hold true. Padre Pio was suspended from offering Mass in public. He was deeply grieved. After three years the suspensions were lifted only to be imposed again in 1931 and again in 1961.
What a heroic gesture it was when Padre Pio was canonized. A saint canonized by a saint! On June 16, 2002, at the height of the clergy sex abuse crisis in the United States, Saint John Paul II declared Padre Pio to be a saint in a canonization Mass before a thronging overflow crowd. Today, his tomb at San Giovanni Rotondo is the second most visited and venerated Catholic shrine in the world, second only to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
In 2010, Pierre Matthews, Pornchai Moontri’s Godfather, came to visit me from Belgium. He told me an astonishing story of having met Padre Pio, and being blessed by his wounded and bandaged hand, when Pierre was 16 years old. He said that he now knows why this event occurred because he is supposed to convey that blessing to me and to Pornchai. This is how our other Patron Saint inserted himself into our lives.
We behind these stone walls are in the worst of situations in the eyes of this fallen world, but we are in the best of hands. Find a Patron Saint, grow in friendship, and never leave home without the company of that companion on the field of spiritual warfare.
Please share this post. To learn more about our Patron Saints behind These Stone Walls please visit the following posts:
- Angelic Justice: St Michael the Archangel and the Scales of Hesed
- Saints Alive! Padre Pio and the Stigmata Sanctity on Trial
- Saint Maximilian Kolbe and the Gift of Noble Defiance