Seems like every day we hear about a new slaughter of innocence, doesn’t it? Between terrorism, ethnic cleansing, abortion, and downright ignorance, seems like the human person is expendable. And it gets me down sometimes, and scares me, most especially when incidents happen like the most recent one in France – where a Catholic priest had his throat slit just after saying daily mass. The two, young, ISIS-affiliated assailants were shot by police and many prayers have already gone up to heaven for the repose of the soul of Fr. Hamel, the fallen priest. Yet I think in all of these incidents we’re forgetting something.
Look at any account of our Roman Catholic martyrs – what are the common links? There is usually a person animated by their deep love for God and for all people, who endures some kind of gruesome or horrible torture/death, and in the final hours before the saint goes to God, there is astonishing, counter-intuitive (to us), heartfelt forgiveness of the assailant. Saint Maria Goretti not only forgave her attacker Alessandro Serennelli on her deathbed, but years later she appeared to him in a dream, extending to him arms full of white lilies, a sign of purity in the Catholic tradition. Alessandro, moved by Maria’s forgiveness and by her appearance in his dream, converted to Catholicism while incarcerated, and was released in time to attend Maria’s canonization – which was perhaps the only canonization in church history that was attended both by the saints’ parent and her murderer! St. Stephen prayed that the sin of his murderers not be held against them. Fr. Christian de Cherge, a Trappist Monk kidnapped and then killed by Islamic terrorists in Algeria, wrote a letter prior to his death forgiving, with all his heart, the one who would strike him down – even going so far as to mention finding his murderer in paradise. He says, most movingly,
“…And you also, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you are doing. Yes, for you also I wish this “thank you” – and this adieu – to commend you to God whose face I see in yours. And may we find each other, happy “good thieves”, in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both.”
As we can see here, heartfelt forgiveness and love of humanity isn’t just for those who have been wronged and are about to die (Fr. de Cherge wrote this well before his death). There are many inspiring stories of those still living who have prayed for and forgiven the people who have gravely sinned against them. After the terrible war and ethnic cleansing in the Sudan, a woman whose child had been murdered and whose arm had been amputated in the process, opened a centre for healing and reconciliation – get this – with the man who had killed her child and cut off her arm. Astounding, isn’t it? Yet this kind of thing doesn’t happen overnight, and it (usually) isn’t possible without a good dose of humility, a deep love for God, and the realization that all men and women are intimately loved by the Lord and made in his image. Because God lives in each one of us – not just those of us who are “good” – and the saints knew it and consciously sought the Lord’s presence in others. Because of this, they were moved to constant fasting, prayer and sacrifice, especially for those who commit evil in the world.
And boy, does our world need it – our fasting, prayers and sacrifices that is – and especially for those who commit evil actions! But we sometimes forget about “those people” and wish every evil on them. While we are praying for the repose of the soul of Fr. Hamel and all the victims of violence in the world, are we praying for the repose of the souls of the assailants, the murderers, the violent ones? I’m sometimes more worried about their souls than I am about the souls of people like Fr. Hamel. Are we fasting, praying and offering urgent sacrifices for the conversion of those involved in any way with ISIS and for sinners everywhere? Or do we send them to hell in our minds and hearts? I’m not saying the vicious and violent shouldn’t be punished for their deeds. There are consequences to every action. But God forgives all, and he loves all, and many who don’t know Him are blinded to their own reprehensible actions. And even those who should know better sometimes don’t! St. Alphonsus Liguori (whose feast day it is today) once said that the enemy labours to blind us – that we may not see the evil we do and the ruin we bring upon ourselves by offending God. We’re all blind and we all sin, some to a greater degree than others. We need to pray, not only for ourselves, but for all people, that they come to know the Lord and change their ways. God is the only one that can convert hearts of violence and strife, to hearts of love and forgiveness.
For the saints, this is where the rubber hit the proverbial road. Humanity can be so ugly sometimes, but they were always able to remember and see God in others. St. Therese one day decided to consciously pray for a convicted felon of her time – who ended up converting! St. Philip Neri, The Cure d’Ars, Padre Pio, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Mother Theresa and many, many others utterly spent themselves helping sinners to the Lord. I am no saint, but I have found myself drawn to pray for a particular woman who participated in the kidnapping and brutal slaying of a little girl several years ago. I’m horrified and repulsed by what she has done, but she is a human being, a woman like me, and she is loved and forgiven by God, just like me, even if she doesn’t know it. I pray that she asks for God’s forgiveness, and that she comes to know His healing love someday.
Because there but for the Grace of God, go I. You. The only reason you and I aren’t worse than of all of the worst sinners in the history of the world is because of what God has done in our lives. End of story. Perhaps many of the people who commit the worst evils in our world only need to see clearly what they are doing, what they have done, to come to God? Let us fast and pray for one another, for our world and everyone in it, most especially those blind to sin. Who knows how our prayers could change ourselves and others!
“True charity consists in doing good to those who do us evil, and in thus winning them over.” ~St. Alphonsus Liguori
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