There are people praying for America’s future — and it is not too late to join them.
The U.S. Catholic bishops took the lead with a fortnight of them for religious liberty. There were eight days earlier this fall, invoking the Blessed Mother. There are an ecumenical 40 days of prayers, too, focusing on protecting innocent human life. There was a big Mass in Washington, D.C., for life and liberty recently, beginning a rosary novena that wrapped up earlier this week — again the idea of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Susan E. Wills, a lawyer and assistant director for Education and Outreach at the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities there, talks about praying about politics, some of the Catholic women and men we’ve been celebrating this month, and why we bother to pray in the following pre-election conversation.
KJL: Why does praying the Rosary have anything to do with an election? Could it be but a feel-good crutch of the pious?
WILLS: The point of praying the rosary isn’t to get a candidate elected. We pray to open our own hearts to better understand and live according to God’s will, and to pray that others will be able to do so as well.
The usual retort is “What makes you think God would prefer one candidate or another?” A lot of factors go into the voting decision (see Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship), but there’s no finessing the Fifth Commandment or Jesus’ “new commandment” that we love one another as he loves us. At a minimum that means we can’t condone the killing of innocent human beings or acquiesce in systemic violations of fundamental human rights. Christians are called to defend the lives and inherent rights of all people, and to try to restore respect for all human life, using every legal means at our disposal — prayer, education, public witness, advocacy and, yes, the ballot box.
Is prayer a “crutch”? Only in the way that communications between parents and their children are a crutch. Parent-child communications and our communication with God through prayer deepen the bonds of love and gratitude, provide guidance and build trust. They give meaning and joy to our lives.
LOPEZ: What can now sainted Kateri Tekakwitha — teach us still?
WILLS: There’s a popular image of Kateri as this sweet, semi-ethereal maiden — the Lily of the Mohawks — a hothouse flower protected from the real world pressures. The reality is that she suffered unimaginable hardships. At age four, smallpox took the lives of her parents and baby brother, and left her half-blind, deeply scarred, weak and lame, hence her Mohawk name, Tekakwitha, which means one who walks groping for her way. Yet, it’s been said that she was a sweet, kindly and hard-working child.
At 11 years of age, she began receiving instruction in the faith from Jesuit missionaries. Her virulently anti-Christian uncle, tried to force her into an arranged marriage and confined her to the village, where she was subjected to ridicule, calumny, and even threats against her life, unless she renounced the faith. After she was baptized at age 20, and took the Christian name Catherine (Kateri in Mohawk), the persecution escalated. The priest who’d advised her to bear these crosses patiently, now urged her to flee to the safety of a Jesuit mission over 200 miles to the north. At age 21, she traveled on foot and by canoe, mostly at night, for over two months to reach the mission near Montreal that had become a haven for Mohawk converts. She devoted the final three years of her life, until her death in 1680, to prayer, caring for the poor and the sick, and teaching children the faith.
Throughout her life, Kateri gave as much to the two communities where she lived as they were prepared to accept from her.
LOPEZ: How is Marianne Cope, another of the women with American roots, canonized this past weekend, relevant to anyone today?
WILLS: Mother Marianne Cope had impressive skills as a leader and administrator. Founding and running hospitals and rising to the top of her order as Provincial would have won her plaudits from any feminist, except for the fact that she accomplished none of this for power, prestige or personal gain. She did it to love and serve God. When the opportunity arose to serve him by caring for women afflicted with leprosy, she seized that opportunity “cheerfully.” With six sisters from her order, Mother Marianne left Syracuse, N.Y. to run several hospitals on Oahu and Maui. And when the Hawaiian government exiled all lepers to Molokai, Mother Marianne accompanied them in exile and “revolutionized life” on that island, determined to make it as comfortable, pleasant, beautiful and fun as possible. She founded a home for the women and their daughters. She convinced a men’s religious order to see to the care of the men and boys. She sewed dresses in the latest fashions for the girls, and tied bows in the hair. She taught them how to grow food and flowers, to paint and decorate, to find joy again in life’s simple pleasures.
Mother Marianne is relevant to us today because she understood the priceless value of every human being — regardless of their physical health or disabilities. She cared for both their physical well-being and nurtured their minds and spirits by restoring joy, beauty, and laughter to their lives. This is the essence of charity, seeing the lowliest and weakest as equal in dignity and worth to ourselves and doing all in our power to ensure that their lives and rights are protected in law.
KJL: Why should Americans, in particular, be celebrating these women?
WILLS: In some ways, these women are quintessentially American women — the type described by de Toqueville as he contrasted them to the “helpless,” decorative, pampered women of Parisian salons. He observed that American women behaved like men’s equals. They were capable, determined, self-reliant and commanding in their domestic sphere — which might entail managing a staff, a farm or plantation, seeing to the physical needs and health of family and staff, and to the faith and education of their children.
Although both Kateri and Mother Marianne remained single women, they became devoted spiritual mothers to children, to the outcast and forlorn. Their faith was unshakable. In Kateri’s case, it gave her the courage to stand up to her uncle and to reject an arranged marriage, to observe the Sabbath rest although it meant that she’d be denied food that day. It sustained her on a two-month journey through the wilderness, and prompted her to devote her last years to others needier than herself.
Mother Marianne was a woman who got things done, but never lost sight of what mattered most — the spiritual needs and happiness of those entrusted to her care.
KJL: Hildegard of Bingen, who was just named a saint and doctor of the Church, isn’t mentioned in the rosary novena, but is she a model for women?
WILLS: Hildegard is another example of what Bl. John Paul called “the feminine genius.” This quality shines in the chants she composed — highly creative works, with gorgeously intricate melodic lines, and a sense of joy and freedom of expression one doesn’t find in typical Gregorian modes. She was also a visionary prophet, a theologian, and an avid scientist. Out of humility, perhaps due to her lack of formal education, Hildegard doubted the authenticity and value of the insights into Scripture that she’d been given. Once her writings were published (with papal encouragement), her fame quickly spread and her spiritual counsel was sought by many, including bishops. The history of the Church is filled with extraordinary women like Hildegard who “spoke truth to power” (she confronted the Holy Roman Emperor over his support for an anti-pope), made significant contributions to the faith and who inspired many by their leadership and sanctity. One can only imagine what Hildegard would say today, if she were to address the U.S. Congress!
KJL: Who is Pedro Calungsod? Poor guy was martyred but what does that have to do with the lives of Americans today?
WILLS: St. Pedro’s brief life serves as a fantastic example to teens. There was nothing superficial about his faith. He knew it so well and loved God so much that Jesuit missionaries considered him a worthy companion on their journey to spread the faith in the Philippines. Here was a teen willing to leave family and everything else behind to bring the Gospel of God’s love to strangers. And his was a joyous faith, filled with songs that he taught those he was catechizing. I’m not suggesting that young people leave home at 15 on a multi-year mission trip. (Wait a few years.) But I am suggesting that they get to know Jesus — through adoration, Ignatian retreats, lectio divina, and regular time for silent prayer. While they’re getting to know him, they can also get to know what his Church teaches. There’s no excuse for ignorance today with thousands of on-line resources. The Catechism is long, but not hard, and you can get it in painless little chunks every day during the Year of Faith by following the pontifical council on the New Evangelization’s Catechism twitter feed.
KJL: “To those in our society who substitute their will for yours, give them the grace to respect our freedom of conscience and our religious freedom, especially when our beliefs are unpopular.” What does that even mean? How can freedom ever mean the freedom to surrender to someone else’s will?
WILLS: It should be obvious to anyone familiar with current events or a smattering of history that the human will, as exercised through government actions, is terribly fallible. Lacking God’s foreknowledge and profound understanding of human nature, large governmental undertakings usually seem to operate by the Law of Unintended Consequences. But God has revealed his will to us, most fully in Jesus Christ. So as a rule of thumb, when elected officials are trying to “fix” some problem, it would make sense for them to discern what God has said about the means they propose. An individual does, of course, have the freedom to give up his freedom (Maximilian Kolbe comes first to mind). A good parent learns to relinquish his will to sleep or read in favor of his baby’s will to be fed or diaper-changed. The essence of being a Christian is acquiring the ability to conform one’s will perfectly to God’s because he knows best what’s good for us.
KJL: What should we know about St. Ignatius of Antioch, particularly today? During an election and a new “Year of Faith”?
WILLS: Ignatius, then bishop of Antioch, was arrested there during the persecution of Trajan. To avoid setting off a riot in Antioch, which the Romans expected might occur if Ignatius were martyred there, the authorities decided to take him to Rome on foot where he was to be killed in the Coliseum. Ignatius welcomed the prospect of being martyred (by two lions) in imitation of his Lord. He used the opportunity of the long march to spread the Gospel in every town they passed through and to write seven letters explaining aspects of Catholic teaching to various local churches and to a bishop-friend.
Pope Benedict has often encouraged Catholics to get to know the saints and, himself, wrote The Fathers, containing brief biographies of the Apostolic Fathers, including Ignatius. The persecution of Christians seems far removed from our lives in the United States. What, after all, can we do to stop the crucifixions now occurring in Egypt? What can we do to stop the torture and beheading of Christians in parts of Africa and the Middle East? Or the torture, imprisonment and martyrdom of Christians in parts of Asia? I don’t have the answers, but if we begin to live our faith outside the walls of our parish churches, we will be better able to influence U.S. policies toward countries that deny religious freedom and turn global opinion against such violations of human rights.
KJL: Paul of the Cross, whose feast day we just celebrated, showed a “willingness to share in the sufferings of Christ”? Who does that?
WILLS: The saints among us willingly share in the sufferings of Christ on a daily basis. The rest of us, not so much. Suffering is an inescapable part of life, but our culture is in denial about that. Many people see suffering as meaningless, something to be avoided at all costs. That typically entails the cost of a child’s life or the life of an elderly relative who’s dying “too slowly.” Some solve the suffering of infertility by resort to reproductive technologies in which the great majority of embryonic children who are created in clinics do not survive to birth. Others promote the destruction of human embryos in research to end the suffering of those with diseases and conditions once thought incurable. Benedict has written that love doesn’t exist without suffering because loving means being willing to put others’ needs ahead of our own. We could certainly use more of that today.
KJL: Are all these — Fortnight, Rosary, etc. — prayers really a thinly veiled attempt to elect Mitt Romney president?
WILLS: Short answer: No. The power of presidents is (usually) somewhat limited and all are capable of doing both short-term good and often long-term harm to individuals and society. The Church takes a longer view. Prayer is about changing our minds and hearts, our whole culture and that of future generations to be fully the people we were created to be — virtuous people who act responsibly, who contribute to society and who are personally involved in defending and improving the lives of others, especially the less fortunate.
LOPEZ: Why is a Catholic response to “war on women” rhetoric often to turn to Mary?
WILLS: Those who accuse candidates of waging a “war on women,” see women as helplessly enslaved to their reproductive organs. Women, they claim, need free contraceptives, abortifacient drugs and devices and taxpayer-funded abortions to achieve their full potential, to achieve prestige, money, power, positions of leadership, etc. What this says is that a woman’s worth and well-being depend on how closely she resembles a man. That calculus ignores all that neuroscience has been uncovering about the vast differences between men and women in terms of brain structure and functioning, their psyches, needs, and ways of relating to people.
Mary, a chaste teen from a village in Palestine, was elevated among all humanity, to the place of highest privilege and honor — the mother of God, queen of angels and queen of all saints — and she achieved that without an MBA, without contraceptives, without destroying another’s career or reputation to get to the top. She is the icon of feminine strength and genius — the mother of God and the spiritual mother of the Apostles, the Church, and all Christians over millennia.
She achieved this by loving perfectly and obeying the will of God perfectly, although to do so brought her the unimaginable suffering of the Seven Sorrows. Here was a mother who witnessed her only Son being rejected, despised, and eventually tortured and crucified.
But now, she has only to ask for anything and her Son will grant it. It is Mary who is able to crush Satan underfoot. Why should we not enlist Mary’s aid when we’re confronted with evils too great for us to combat on our own?