May 15, 2012

Witness to Hope when Beauty is Defaced

It was a sorrow to learn that my childhood parish was defaced by vandals last week.  Mission Santa Cruz was founded in the late 18th Century by the Franciscan Missionaries who first brought the Gospel of Christ to the native peoples of California. Since the beginning, the Mission, and the Holy Cross Parish which succeeded it, have had a difficult history with earthquakes, natural disaster and local politics. Yet, for me, from childhood until today, this parish church continues to tower over Santa Cruz, not just architecturally but also in its outreach to the poor, as a beacon of hope in the midst of chaos, a sign on earth pointing to heaven.

It is difficult not to associate the attacks on traditional marriage - both local and national - with the vandalism of Mission Santa Cruz and Holy Cross Parish in California. In both cases, there is an effort to deface something beautiful. In both cases, those who carried out the attacks whether with spray paint or with political rhetoric are to be more the pitied than scorned. In both cases, it is difficult to forgive or forget having family values and religious truths publically derided and despised. In both cases, the Holy Spirit prompts me to surrender to his action under which alone I can learn compassion and intercession. In both cases, the proper response is to pray for our enemies and those who hate us.

How can anyone be surprised by hatred against the Church and against the things of God for which she stands, things like traditional marriage and beauty? In the last one hundred years, more violence has been indiscriminately unleashed against specifically Christian populations than in any period of history. That these same forces of hatred for God should now be unleashed in this country and in the communities in which I live, this is no surprise.

St. Therese of Lisieux confronted this kind of malice over a hundred years ago. Only a few months after she had written her play on St. Joan of Arc, St. Therese learned of the supposed dramatic conversion of a certain "Diana Vaughan." St. Therese did not know that it was part of an elaborate a hoax fabricated by Gabriel Antoine Jogand-Pagès which took in not only local priests and bishops, but even the pope.   Without realizing she was playing into a prank of scandalous scale, St. Therese sent a picture where she was dressed up as St. Joan of Arc to "Diana" to encourage her.

Jogand-Pagès who wrote under the pseudonym "Leo Taxil" feigned a conversion to Catholicism and had plotted over a period of years a media campaign to embarrass the Church, especially the clergy.  "Diana" was a completely fictitious character he had invented for this purpose.  In addition to a dramatic conversion, the fictional "Diana" claimed a special devotion to Joan of Arc.  When she sent in her picture, Therese had no idea that she had played into his plot.  

Therese's picture was used as a backdrop by Jogand-Pagès when he exposed his prank to a packed audience of onlookers. This was an act of aggression against people of faith in general, but also a mockery of St. Therese's whole way of life specifically. This public humiliation was delivered while St. Therese was dying of tuberculosis.

St. Therese's actions at this point are impressive and point the way forward when cultural forces become mean-spirited towards people of faith. She had already abandoned herself into the hands of God. She looked on her life as an offering to his merciful love. Instead of anger or judgment, she turned to prayer and offered her sufferings for souls just like Jogand-Pagès.

Although there is no evidence that he ever converted, there were thousands of others like him who did. I am constantly amazed at the conversions to Christ of learn of those who were far from God but feel somehow St. Therese helped them find Him. This is because the power of God's mercy is greater than human misery, and even our persecutors need a sign of hope. The witness to hope when beauty is defaced is found in the depths of prayer - and these times call us to pray like never before.