Given certain recent news stories, I want to talk about four saints, all of whom are either very well known or whose names we at least recognize, so I’m not going to go into their stories so much. Instead, I want to focus on one common thing in their lives and how they dealt with that, namely persecution.
Now think about it. When someone persecutes us or falsely accuses us, there is nothing that gets our dander up more than that, is there? For instance, a spouse accuses another spouse of doing XYZ or being disingenuous. Or the boss passes us over for an opportunity we know should be ours, but instead it goes to a coworker we deem less worthy. You know, during the OJ Simpson case, as convincing as the prosecution’s argument was, I remember thinking, ‘What if? What if he really didn’t do this horrible, heinous crime, and he really is innocent?’ I think of a priest in a New Hampshire prison who both Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and Avery Cardinal Dulles both thought was innocent. Because he maintains he’s innocent and refuses to plea bargain, the judge locked him away for 30 years.
So life offers us many opportunities in all shapes and sizes to experience both persecution and unjust accusations. Again, though, how do we deal with that?
For one answer, indeed for the context of all of this, let’s start with Our Lord, and what we see when He is crowned with thorns.
Here He is, being punched, spat upon, having a crown of thorns beat into His head, causing His precious Blood to flow down onto His parched lips. The soldiers mock Him and taunt Him.
Now if that were me, I’d scream in rage at them, “Who are you miserable, cretinous creatures to treat me like this?! I am your CREATOR! I created you! You would not exist other than my divine will! HOW DARE YOU!!!”
But what does Our Lord say, instead?
He says not a word. When He does speak about them, it is only to say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Following this example, consider St. John of the Cross, the seventeenth century Spanish Carmelite. You want to talk about being persecuted. This guy, all he wanted to do was reform his order, to bring it back to its original charism of poverty. Because of this, his order not only cruelly mistreated him, but they locked him away for years in a dark cell. He didn’t lash out. He didn’t complain. Instead, he used this period to write one of the most powerful spiritual works of all time, Dark Night of the Soul. We’re still reading that book born of pain today.
Then there was St. Gerard Majella. It’s peculiar that this eighteenth century male religious is the patron saint of those who are pregnant, right? I mean, he’s a man and was never pregnant, therefore, so why him?
Well, it’s because some very obviously pregnant woman came to his convent one day and accused him of being the father. And you know what he said when they brought the accusation before him? Nothing. Not a word. He refused to defend himself. Absolutely refused. His superiors couldn’t believe the charge. Yes, he was handsome and virile, but he was also dedicated to his vocation and extremely pious. Because he would not defend himself, however, they suspended him from all pastoral activity within the convent and told him to stay away from the Communion rail for months.
The woman later admitted she had lied. When his superior St. Alphonsus Ligouri asked him, “Why didn’t you defend yourself?” he replied that silence was what he thought was necessary and required in situations where there were unjust accusations.
St. Dominic Savio was once falsely accused of committing a practical joke. “Why did you do this?” he was angrily asked by his teacher. He refused to defend himself, knowing full well he was innocent. And in time, his teacher learned the truth of the matter. Like St. Alphonsus with St. Gerard, the teacher asked why he hadn’t defended himself against these unjust accusations. St. Gerard simply said, “I thought of our Lord when He was unjustly accused. He didn’t say a word either.”
Finally, there is Padre Pio. In the book, I recount the following about him:
At one point, St. Pio was ordered to stop the public celebration of the sacraments. These commands came from his archbishop, who, unlike Padre Pio, was no one’s idea of a saint, and yet he obeyed.[i]
Under Archbishop Gagliardi’s censure, Padre Pio “was stripped of all priestly faculties except celebration of Mass in his friary’s inner chapel…[ii]
Padre Agostino Daniele, Pio’s best friend and confessor for more than fifty years, charged that Gagliardi waged “a veritable satanic war” against Padre Pio, soliciting letters with “accusations, exaggerations, and calumnies” to forward to the Vatican – while it was the archbishop himself who was the center of controversy.
So bad was the situation that a number of priests in the archdiocese petitioned Pope Pius XI to end what they saw as “disorder,” “immorality,” and “clerical degeneracy.”
This was not the case, however, with Padre Pio. He never retaliated against the archbishop, nor even criticized him. In fact the angriest the famous mystical priest was seen to get was with a supporter – a Pio defender – who had attacked the archbishop. Although shattered, Pio was said to have submitted to the bishop’s attacks with what Father Agostino recalled as “holy resignation.”
“God’s will be done,” Pio, a Capuchin monk, is quoted as saying. “The will of the authorities is the will of God.”[iii]
It was not only the questionable archbishop who restricted the scope of his priesthood but also the Holy Office. This happened in 1922, and he was ordered not to bless crowds or display his stigmata. He could not even discuss them. Correspondence was severely restricted, and authorities forbade him from seeing his spiritual director. When someone expressed disgust over Rome’s restrictions, St. Pio replied, “You did a wicked thing… We must respect the decrees of the Church. We must be silent and suffer.”
In her piece on recent news, Secular Carmelite Diane Korzeniewski quotes the Servant of God Fr. John Hardon, SJ on humility and obedience in such instances:
Several times in this post I have used the word, “docility”. What does this mean in the spiritual life? Let’s look at what Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ has to say. Yesterday, June 18, marked not only the day of his birth, but of his priestly ordination. He remarks in an article on virtues concerning “Childlikeness“ about docility thus:
It means therefore to be willing to learn from God and here’s the hard one: the willingness to learn from God not of course as though God will, though of course He might, send us His own divine angelic messenger, normally not. Normally God teaches us through the circumstances of our daily lives. Especially those most painful circumstances called other people. That’s where we tend to be less than docile. Openness then to God’s teaching us especially through all whom He places into our lives. It is great, great wisdom to be so disposed as to be ready to learn from and I mean it, everyone from the youngest child to the oldest speaking to religious golden or diamond jubilarian.
She then asks:
Does this mean we ought never defend ourselves? See the answer below as St. Francis de Sales quotes St. Gregory on this point.
“When any evil befalls you, apply the remedies that may be in your power, agreeably to the will of God; for to act otherwise would be to tempt divine Providence Having done this, wait with resignation for the success it may please God to send; and, should the remedies overcome the evil, return Him thanks with humility, but if, on the contrary, the evils overcome the remedies, bless Him with patience.”
The following advice of St. Gregory is useful: whenever you are ‘justly accused’ of a fault, humble yourself, and candidly confess that you deserve more than the accusation which is brought against you; but, if the charge be false, excuse yourself meekly, denying your guilt, for you owe this respect to truth, and to the edification of your neighbor. But if, after your true and lawful excuse, they should continue to accuse you, trouble not yourself nor strive to have your excuse admitted; for, having discharged your duty to truth, you must also do the same to humility, by which means you neither offend against the care you ought to have of your reputation, nor the love you owe to peace, meekness of heart, and humility.
Humanly speaking, all of this is impossible. It is tough to bite our tongues. I see it when my children feel I’ve unjustly accused them. I absolutely experience this when my wife accuses me of doing something I haven’t or of having reasons for doing something that were never mine.
So it is agonizingly difficult. Still, Our Lord tells us, “Be perfect as Your Father in heaven is perfect.” Since the Father and Son are indivisible, it follows that one way to perfect ourselves in this way is to imitate the Son, as these saints did. This can only happen through much prayer and recourse to the graces found in the sacraments.
In today’s world, we cannot expect this to be a popular option, now, can we? Yet since we are Christians and because we should know better, we should endeavor to make this our most popular option. In doing so, we would help create a more perfect world less focused on self and more focused on God, and that would be good for everyone.
Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make our hearts like unto Thine. Amen.