Tag Archives: nonviolence

Letters to the Editor

Two Letters to the Editor of Boston Pilot on the Robert Barron article

Mark Scibilia-Carver • 15 days ago

Actually, it was 1700 years ago that “something broke in the Christian culture” and Bishop Barron himself is evidence of a Christian who has not recovered from the allure of Christian Just War Theory. (CJWT) After the “1917” film reminded him of the evils of WWI, he assures us he is not so unnerved as to advocate pacifism (or Gospel Nonviolence) but he applies an “in bellum principle” of CJWT. However, to be just, a war has to first meet all the “ad bellum” criteria. CJWT has no basis in Jesus or the Gospel and has never been taught with the authority of an encyclical or church council. It is accepted with, perhaps the lowest level of certainty and authority. It is a critical mistake to give it such precedence over the Gospel.
Most US CO’s in WWI were from the historic peace churches which had never accepted CJWT. The witness of one of the 10 or so Catholic CO’s should be of particular interest. Benjamin Jospeh Salmon wrote a 235 page treatise while fasting in prison and concluded, “There is no such animal as a just war”.
Bishop Barron seems to place much responsibility on the combatants for not understanding the significance of their baptism. We should note that the US bishops first organized themselves as the National Catholic War Council to support and encourage Catholic participation in WWI. Even after witnessing the scandal of Christians killing each other by the millions in Europe they pledged their patriotism and support for the president. They considered the CO’s to be traitors.
Cardinal Gibbons wrote, “This war offers us, indeed, the greatest opportunity in all history of inspiring our men with religion.” (!)
Will Bishop Barron’s New Evangelization take account?

-Mark Carver

I’m not sure what point the bishop wishes to make here, Europeans had been slaughtering each other relentlessly for centuries prior to world war I. World war 1 was particularly awful because of obsolete military tactics contending with advances in military technology. Probably the longest, most brutal and totally pointless war in history, with an estimated 5-10 million dead, raged between the two pseudo-christian powers of England and France for more than 500 years. Oh, and all these wars have been championed by the major pseudo-christian churches of Europe both Catholic and Protestant.

-JP Fitz

What about Franz?

Thoughts on conscientious objection and the new film “A Hidden Life”

by Ellen Finnigan

This article was first published at LewRockwell.com.

On November 24 I gave a presentation in the basement of my church in Colorado about two Catholic conscientious objectors. The first was Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer, husband, and father who refused to fight for Hitler during World War II. I was hoping that his witness, memorialized in the upcoming film by Terrence Malick, might be a stepping stone for people to consider the life of Ben Salmon, a Catholic man from Denver who refused to fight in World War I. Jägerstätter has been declared a martyr and “Blessed” in the Catholic Church, which is one step away from being canonized, or declared a saint, and some of us are trying to put Ben Salmon on that same path. President Kennedy once wrote: “War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige as the warrior does today.” By spreading the word about the film A Hidden Life and advocating for Ben Salmon’s cause for sainthood, some American Catholics are trying to bring that day a bit closer. (In case you don’t make it to the end of the article, you can help us by going here, reading about Ben Salmon’s life, and signing the petition!) 

Christ the King

November 24 happened to be the Feast of Christ the King. I was hoping that the priest’s homily would be a good primer for my presentation, pointing out the differences between that which we associate with worldly kingship — wealth, war, servants, subjects, thrones, political power, military might — and the kingship of Christ, the Prince of Peace, who was born in a manger, raised in nowhere Nazareth, rode into Jerusalem on an ass and came to serve rather than to be served. The two kingdoms are not necessarily opposed. As Pope Pius XI writes in his encyclical Quas Primas: “[Christ’s] kingdom is opposed to none other than to that of Satan and to the power of darkness.” But the Feast Day of Holy Innocents which takes place a few days after Christmas reminds us that they can be opposed and, I would add, most often are: “Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the Wise Men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under…” (Mt 2:16). 

Worldly kingdoms are founded on violence. They are obsessed with counting, spying, surveilling, and keeping track. They demand, for example, that their subjects be accounted for in censuses so that they can tax them or draft them to fight in wars, even if this means a very pregnant woman must ride for for days on a donkey along dangerous, bandit-ridden roads to report to her Roman overlords. The state assumes the power to threaten, intimidate, imprison, torture, bomb, electrocute, assassinate, poison, and in the case of Franz Jägerstätter”, gruesomely behead. In contrast, Cyril of Alexandria writes: “Christ has dominion over all creatures, a dominion not seized by violence nor usurped, but his by essence and by nature.” The Kingdom of Heaven is founded on love. Jesus assures us: “Even the hairs of your head have all been counted” (Lk 12:7). You see God counts too, but not in the same way or for the same purposes.

The feast day of Christ the King was established only relatively recently, in 1925. World War I had ended seven years before and was called “the war to end all wars,” but of course it only planted the seeds for the next one. Franz Jägerstätter had lost his biological father in the Great War. Though he had always had an interest in spiritual reading, he wasn’t yet any kind of Christian radical. In 1925, he was just a seventeen-year-old kid who would soon be working in the mines and earning a badge of honor by being the first person in his village to own a motorcycle. 

In his encyclical of 1925, Pope Pius XI reminds us that the establishment of a new feast day isn’t random but has something to do with the state of the world. At that time nationalism and secularism were on the rise. He writes: “The empire of Christ over all nations was rejected…the religion of Christ came to be likened to false religions…It was then put under the power of the state and tolerated more or less at the whim of princes and rulers. Some men went even further, and wished to set up in the place of God’s religion a natural religion…There were even some nations who thought they could dispense with God…The rebellion of individuals and states against the authority of Christ has produced deplorable consequences.”

He was writing all of this in the year after Lenin died and Stalin came to power, the year Hitler published the first volume of Mein Kampf, and the yearMussolini gave a speech marking the beginning of his dictatorship. Who could have guessed that the kid riding on his motorcycle in the middle of the mountains of nowhere Austria would turn out to be the kind of Catholic the Pope hoped to see, one who, without “station” or “authority” would nonetheless “bear the torch of truth”. He writes:

We firmly hope…that the feast of the Kingship of Christ, which in future will be yearly observed, may hasten the return of society to our loving Savior. It would be the duty of Catholics to do all they can to bring about this happy result. Many of these, however, have neither the station in society nor the authority which should belong to those who bear the torch of truth.This state of things may perhaps be attributed to a certain slowness and timidity in good people, who are reluctant to engage in conflict or oppose but a weak resistance; thus the enemies of the Church become bolder in their attacks. But if the faithful were generally to understand that it behooves them ever to fight courageously under the banner of Christ their King, then, fired with apostolic zeal, they would strive to win over to their Lord those hearts that are bitter and estranged from him, and would valiantly defend his rights.

By 1938, when Germany began the annexation of Austria, Franz had inherited a farm and married a devout Catholic, with whom he’d have three children, and largely because of her influence, he studied the Bible and became active in his village parish. When he was drafted in 1940, he did report to his Nazi overlords and went through six months of military training. That same year he became a member of the Third Order of Saint Francis. In the years following he would no longer cooperate with Hitler and his troops in any fashion. He would not swear an oath to Hitler, nor would he opt for some form of alternative service, such as working in a hospital. In his decision to refuse cooperation with what he believed to be evil, he was not supported by country, community, or church. 

Things Hidden

Standing at the lectern after Mass, I asked how many people had ever heard of Franz. Only one person out of about three hundred raised his hand. This is one reason why Terrence Malick’s film is called A Hidden Life.

“Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on the earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God, and when Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory” (Col 3:2-4). 

For a long time nobody knew about the heroic resistance of Franz. He was a source of shame to many of those who did.We must ask: Why is Franz still mostly unknown, especially among Catholics, when his story has been out there for decades? Gordon Zahn discovered the story and wrote a book about him called “In Solitary Witness” in 1964. In 1968 Thomas Merton wrote a chapter about him in Faith and Violence, the last book to bepublished before his mysterious death (allegedly by electrocution). Daniel Ellsberg said it was Franz Jägerstätter who inspired him to release the Pentagon papers. (You can hear more about this in an episode of my podcast called “A Friend of Franz and Ben.”) In 1971 the Austrian government produced a film about Franz called The Refusal, which aired on Austrian television. It’s been over thirteen years since Franz was declared a martyr and beatified. 

Granted, there are a lot of saints out there, new ones being canonized all the time, but one would think that in an age when Adolf Hitler has become the “super villain” of the twentieth century, when the History Channel runs an almost continuous stream of content elucidating the sinister activities of the Third Reich, when any suggestion that Christians might be called to be peacemakers instead wagers-of-war is met with the inevitable question “What about Hitler?”, we might have heard something about one of the few Christians who actively resisted him, who was willing to pay the price, the price Jesus said His followers would have to pay. But most of us haven’t. So I didn’t bother asking my parish whether anyone had heard of Ben Salmon. I invited people down for the presentation and yes, coffee and donuts.


A Hidden Life is a stunningly beautiful achievement, one of those films that paralyzes you. When it’s over, you sit there immersed in the music until the last credit has rolled, the lights have been turned on, and a teenager is standing in back with a broom waiting for you to leave. When I left, the manager asked me if I was alright. I nodded and slipped into the restroom. Mascara: everywhere. A woman who also appeared raccoon-like whispered: “That is a movie you never forget.”

“Indeed,” I thought as I blinked my way out into the cold, disoriented. It was like trying to find my car at the airport after a long trip. I had parked so very long ago. 

On the drive home I thought about that kid with the broom, no different essentially from Franz. Will he ride home on his new motorcycle or in his new car with his windows rolled down, loving the feeling of driving at night with nobody on the road? Will he fall in love, get married? What will he do when he turns 18 and has to sign up for the Selective Service? What about when (not if) the wagers-of-war decide to launch the next one, which might be happening as I write this essay, against Iran? Does he go to church? Would his church even talk about the war and any moral dilemma it might pose to Christians or would they just applaud vaguely “all those in uniform” and send them on their way — to kill, to die? Would anyone tell him he could say “no”? Would anyone understand if he did?

Sometimes I think we prefer to attribute the support of Hitler among Christians of that time to, in the words of Pope Pius XI,“a certain slowness and timidity in good people, who are reluctant to engage in conflict.” We assume they must have been ignorant of what was happening or maybe, if they did see the powers of darkness at play, they were simply too weak or fearful to stand up to it. God have mercy on them. But Thomas Merton, in his essay on Franz, presents us with another way of understanding the people of that time: 

“[Franz’s] Austrian Catholic friends understood that he was unwilling to fight for Hitler’s Germany, but they argued that the war was justified because they hoped it would lead to the destruction of Bolshevism and therefore to the preservation of ‘European Christianity.’ He was therefore refusing to defend his faith.” 

What if the Christians in that time and place, instead of being fearful or weak, when they took the oath, trained and enlisted, believed themselves to be, in the words of Pope Pius XI, “fighting courageously under the banner of Christ their King,” “fired with apostolic zeal,” “valiantly defending His rights”? 

How many Christians before Hitler or since then have fought in wars waged by worldly kings because they thought it was justified if it would lead to the defeat of some “-ism,” or because they thought they were fighting the enemies of the Church, or preserving Christianity?

What happened to the priests in Hitler’s Germany? How many Christians existed in the Middle East before September 11, 2001? How many exist there now?

Pope Benedict XVI writes in his book Jesus of Nazareth about Christ’s third temptation: “…throughout history [the third temptation] is constantly taking on new forms. The Christian empire attempted at an early stage to use the faith in order to cement political unity. The Kingdom of Christ was now expected to take the form of a political kingdom and its splendor. The powerlessness of faith, the earthly powerlessness of Jesus Christ, was to be given the helping hand of political and military might. This temptation to use power to secure the faith has arisen again and again in varied forms throughout the centuries, and again and again faith has risked being suffocated in the embrace of power. The struggle for the freedom of the church, the struggle to avoid identifying Jesus’ Kingdom with any political structure, is one that has to be fought century after century. For the fusion of faith and political power always comes at a price: faith becomes the servant of power and must bend to its criteria.” 

Interestingly enough, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) actually grew up about an hour from Franz Jägerstätter’s village of St. Radegund, across the Salzach River, in Bavaria. He took the oath that Jägerstätter refused to take and joined Hitler’s youth corps when it became mandatory, but he was only about thirteen at the time. In 1938, Franz was no longer a kid. He was a 31-year-old man. And he thought like a 31-year-old man. By that point in his life, he’d had the time to read the Bible, to get to know Jesus, to grow in his faith. 

The questions Franz asks in the film are so universal they must surely resonate with us, the viewers. In one scene Franz says: 

“We’re killing innocent people, raiding other countries, preying on the weak. And the priests call them heroes, even saints, the soldiers, the doers. It might be that the other ones are the heroes, the ones who defend their homes against the invaders.”

Every U.S. president over the last 28 years has ordered the bombing of Iraq. Something like a million Iraqis have died during the past three decades as a consequence of U.S. occupation, bombings and sanctions. The decision to launch new air strikes recently ignited nationwide resistance by Iraqis who want the U.S. out of their country and do not want Iraq to be used in a U.S. war on Iran. A veteran that I interviewed expressed that he “didn’t see the light on the sinfulness of American militarism and foreign policy until he was an active participant in it, while wearing a US Army uniform in Kuwait in 2009 and being told the Kuwaitis no longer thank us for our service.”

At one point Franz asks: Does it even matter if this war is just?

Many of us ask this question today! One of the tenets of a “just war” is that it must be waged by proper authority. There has been no declaration of war by Congress since the Korean War! My fellow blogger noted that in the November issue of Columbia magazine, published by the Knights of Columbus, they dedicated a whole article to a Navy SEAL who was a recipient of the Medal of Honor for his service in Afghanistan. My fellow blogger writes: “The Knights did not delve deeper on the morality and justness of the war in Afghanistan, especially after Osama bin Laden was killed…which is when the events occurred for this sailor to receive the award.” Even if the Knights had published the article a month later, after the release of “The Afghanistan Papers,” I doubt they would have acknowledged this sticky point. In the words of Caitlin Johnstone:  “from the very beginning [Afghanistan] was an unwinnable conflict, initiated in a region nobody understood, without anyone being able to so much as articulate what victory would even look like.…” But that wasn’t exactly a bombshell. Everybody already knew this! There was no “reasonable chance of success” from the beginning, and that too is a tenet of the Just War Theory that must be “strictly applied.” I’m with Franz in thinking: Does the question of whether a war is just even matter to most Catholics? 

The questions Franz asks in the film, however, about just war, do not seem meant to challenge the beliefs of his his neighbors and friends, or to condemn them; rather they show that he is puzzling out the issue for himself. He did not believe Germany’s was a “just war.” However, there is reason to think that by the time he died in 1943, after languishing in jail, after much prayer, meditation, and suffering, he objected to all killing in any war. In other words, the formation of his conscience, the solidification of his beliefs, did not happen overnight. For Franz, and for most conscientious objectors I would guess, it is a process, a gradual process of revelation, as they come to see what they didn’t before, and sometimes it takes years. Christ said he would “announce things lain hidden since the foundation of the world” (Mt 13:35). Sadly the institutional church seems to have played very little role, if any, in that process of revelation for Franz. In fact if anything, they seem to have been a hindrance, an impediment, a stumbling block. 

Similarities between Franz and Ben

About thirty people showed up in the basement of the church, which we considered a success. We showed the group the trailer for A Hidden Life, and one of two short documentaries about Ben Salmon. We explained a few of the similarities between these two men: 

  1. Both men decided when ordered to serve their country in a time of war to “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Like Franz, Ben was older, about 30 when the draft was instated and he refused to complete a Selective Service questionnaire.
  2. They both suffered greatly for their choice, Franz being sent to prison and eventually the guillotine, Ben being sent to jail and then a mental hospital. (Ben died very young at the age of 43, most likely as a result of his damaged health from the treatment he received while being a ward of the state). 
  3. They were both motivated by their Catholic faith and we can come to understand their beliefs and position through their writing: Franz wrote many letters to his wife Franziska from jail and Ben wrote a 200-page manuscript on a typewriter from his hospital room explaining his beliefs, using only a Bible and the Catholic encyclopedia for reference. 
  4. They were both family men, Franz a husband and father of three girls, Ben a husband and father of one son at the time he was incarcerated. 
  5. Their choice was not supported either by their country or their church. Franz’s bishop told him it was is duty to serve his country and a priest actually refused to give Ben Holy Communion to punish him for the stance that he took. Ben was also expelled from the Knights of Columbus, Denver Council, for having edited and published an anti-war article and was attacked by them publicly and privately. 
  6. Both seem to exemplify Jesus’s words: “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.” Franz was seen as a traitor for a long time by the people in his village, and his wife and children were ostracized and scorned; Ben was considered to be a source of shame for the family, called a scoundrel and a slacker by the press, and practically disowned by his in-laws. 

At the end of our presentation, one man whom I recognized, who was very involved in the church came up to us and said: “I respect what these guys did and all. But my view is that, if everyone did what they did, we’d all be speaking German.” 

Speaking Versus Silence

 Franz once wrote: “If the Church stays silent in the face of what is happening, what difference would it make if no church were ever opened again?” Franz wanted to “break the silence” of the Catholic Church, and yet, in the film, his resistance is largely silent. One of the most glorious things about A Hidden Life isthe sparse use of dialogue. You leave the film with the impression of having listened for most of the film to the sounds of the natural world — wind in the grasses, children playing in the fields, scythes cutting down hay, carts rolling over dirt, and the plodding of an ox. Franz, the protagonist, doesn’t speak much. Almost everyone else in the film seems to have more lines than him, and it is almost as if the Devil is speaking to Franz through the people around him, trying to get him to question his stance, second guess his decision, compromise. None of these people are evil or possessed! To us they might sound rather practical, but for Franz they are the equivalent of a chorus of reasoning demons.

Pope Benedict XVI writes in his book Jesus of Nazareth: “The tempter is not so crude as to suggest to us directly that we should worship the devil. He merely suggests that we opt for the reasonable decision, that we choose to give priority to a planned and thoroughly organized world, where God may have his place as a private concern but must not interfere in our essential purposes.” And our essential purposes would include, we believe, survival, the well-being of one’s family. In the film Franz is so very alone, like Jesus in the desert, and he is being tempted. 

Thomas Merton wrote in his essay on Franz: 

“Franz Jägerstättersurrendered his life rather than take the lives of others in what he believed to be an ‘unjust war’. He clung to this belief in the fact of every possible objection not only on the part of the army and the state, but also from his fellow Catholics, the Catholic clergy and of course his own family. He had to meet practically every ‘Christian’ argument that is advanced in favor of war. He was treated as a rebel, disobedient to lawful authority, a traitor to his country. He was accused of being selfish, self-willed, not considering his family, neglecting his duty to his children. 

…He was also told that he was not sufficiently informed to judge whether or not the war was just. That he had an obligation to submit to the ‘higher wisdom’ of the state. The government and the Fuehrer know best. Thousand of Catholics, including many priests, were serving in the armies, and therefore he should not try to be ‘more Catholic than the Church.’

He was even reminded that the bishops had not protested against this war, and in fact not only his pastor but even his bishop tried to persuade him to give us his resistance because it was ‘futile.’ One priest represented to him that he would have innumerable opportunities to practice Christian virtue and exercise an ‘apostolate of good example’ in the armed forces. All these are very familiar arguments frequently met with in our present situation, and they are still assumed to be so conclusive that few Catholics dare to risk the disapproval they would incur by conscientious objection and dissent.” 

The people around Franz present him with arguments. The arguments they make to Franz however never turn into arguments with Franz, because the character of Franz hardly ever responds, except by listening. Sometimes he appears pricked, pained, but never angered. He never rebuts or retaliates. The actor’s expressions give one the feeling that Franz wants badly to engage the person who is speaking to him but he knows there is nothing he could say that could make them understand. He can speak only through his actions. He seems submerged in himself, in something deep, quiet. It reminds you of “a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep silent before the sheerers, who opens not his mouth” (Is 53:7). 

The sparse use of dialogue is a hallmark of Terrence Malick’s style, but it works in this particular film on  a few different levels. For one, it says something about the Catholic world in which Jägerstätter lived. In the past sixty years, the Catholic Church has clarified its teachings on conscience. It was a major topic at the Second Vatican Council, especially in its final document, Gaudium et spes, butat the time of the first and second World Wars, many Catholics thought it was a sin not to fight in a war for your country. You can now find the term “Conscientious Objectors” in the index of the Catechism. Even in political circles people talk of “religious liberty.” But in Franz’s time, I’m not sure they had this kind of vocabulary or explicit Catholic teaching to appeal or refer to. 

Secondly, Franz was no scholar, academic, or theologian. He was a farmer. I doubt he would have been found reading Scriptural exegesis at night. He didn’t need to. He knew was right and what was wrong in this situation, what he should do and what he should not do. His conscience told him clearly. When an S.S. officer asks him, “Do you judge me?”, Franz doesn’t start arguing the finer points of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Just War Theory. He doesn’t need to. He replies simply, gently: “No.” He adds that he doesn’t know everything; he only knows that he can’t do what he believes is wrong. I thought of: “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.” (Mt 5:37). 

Thirdly, the sparse dialogue means that the film does not try to dramatize any theological or theoretical debates. Franz, though very intelligent, is clearly motivated by something deeper than intellectual understanding. A Hidden Life is art. It doesn’t argue: It illustrates. And what it illustrates is the completely unique, never-repeatable, all too transitory beauty of one human life. It shows the bonds between people, especially families, husbands, wives, parents, and children; it immerses us in Creation, in the rich soil, the moving clouds, the rushing rivers, the mountain air. It pulls you into the rhythms of work, the motions of the body, the breath of life, the joy of play. I think the strongest “argument” made to Franz, and one of the tenderest moments in the film, is when his wife, lying next to him in a field, sweetly asks if he would like more children. 

What the film does, which is so effective, is: It shows you through simple, everyday moments, the preciousness of everything Jägerstätter had to give up. It shows you what a beautiful life he had, how much he loved, how much he had to love, and how much more he could have loved if he’d had more time on this Earth. It shows you, too, the pain and the suffering that his decision caused to the people who loved him. It shows you the cost of his choice. It makes you ask why? 

Is Jesus not pro-life? Doesn’t he want us to live?

By seeing all of this in the film, being awash in it, living it vicariously and almost viscerally, rather than intellectually, one is prompted to try to envision “the pearl of great price” (Mt 13:46)  that Franz must have found, a “pearl of great price” which cannot be illustrated in film, depicted on screen, or conveyed through argument. Maybe it cannot even be imagined by us, who may still be in the process of seeking it, discovering it. It is like when Jesus talks about the treasure that was hidden in a field and found, and the finder buries it again and sells everything in order to buy the field. In these parables of the treasure and the pearl, there is something “hidden” about the Kingdom of God. But the one who finds it is willing to give away everything, absolutely everything, to possess it. Jesus himself was hidden from the dark forces of the world when he was born. By experiencing for two hours a semblance of the life that Franz lived and gave up, and becoming familiar with everything he sacrificed, which was so beautiful, we can begin to imagine the value of what it was he was giving it up for, which only Franz knew, which only Franz could see. The word “martyr” originally meant simply “witness.” Sometimes when we can’t see something for ourselves, we need a witness testify to what he saw, and this helps us to believe. Actions, of course, speak louder than words. 

In the words of Pope Benedict XVI: “[Jesus] himself is the treasure; communion with him is the pearl of great price.” Jesus tells us: “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you.” Pope Benedict XVI tells us that the phrase “Kingdom of God” occurs 122 times in the New Testament and 90 of these texts represent the words of Jesus. Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God is at hand, in our midst. Not all of us, for some reason, can see it. Franz could! Christ the King reigned not in Franz’s head but in his heart, and here’s what seems most important to me: Franz knew that every good king needs not merely to be revered but obeyed. Jesus said: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” This was not a suggestion, a moral guideline, a best practice. It was a commandment. 

We are told by the war wagers that every war must be fought, that it is necessary to kill, for “freedom.” 

Franziska’s last words to Franz at the end of the film are at testament to that Christ-like love that wills only good, and the ultimate good, for the other. She says: “I am with you always. Do what is right.” 

What other freedom is there? 

Better Questions

When someone tells us that “we would all be speaking German” if everyone had done what Franz did, it is the same thing as saying, “What about Hitler?” (This is still the best answer I’ve ever heard to that question.) It’s a seventy-year-old question and I think it’s time we start asking better ones. What is implied here is the old adage that evil triumphs when good people do nothing. Would we call what Franz did “nothing”? If we say no to evil, and let it mean no, doesn’t that count for something? 

The simple truth is that Hitler would have had no power at all in the first place if more people had done the “nothing” that Franz did. You wouldn’t need everyone to do what Franz did. Let’s say just the Christians did what Franz did, or of all Christians just the Catholics, or of all Catholics just ten percent of them, or five percent. What would have happened then? We don’t know. But it’s time to start asking, instead of “What about Hitler?”, “What about Franz”?

Perhaps we prefer the question “What about Hitler?” because it helps us to justify our own violence.

War movies have always sought, through spectacle, to glorify war and those who fight in them (Saving Private Ryan) or to facilitate collective mourning for their tragedies (Born on the Fourth of July). Before movies there were murals and other works of art that accomplished the same thing. When we first meet Helen of Troy in Homer’s Iliad, she is weaving a tapestry depicting scenes from the war, wallowing in shame and regret. In The Aeneid, Aeneas arrives in Carthage to find a giant mural depicting scenes from the Trojan War, which cause him and his men to break down and weep. In The Odyssey, when Penelope first appears, she asks the singer to stop singing a song about the war, as it brings her too much pain. Humans have always lamented war through art, poetry, song, literature, and film, but most of the art we make about war seems only to provide us with an opportunity for what Aristotle called “catharsis”. Our artistic testaments to the waste, destruction, pain, suffering and futility of war rarely serve to provide wisdom, to steer people in a new direction. When it comes to war, it seems the words of the great pagan writer, Aeschylus, still ring true: “Man must suffer to be wise.” 

But is that changing? 

I believe there is a perceptible shift, especially among war movies. With time comes perspective, and with some distance from a most dark and deadly century, we can see A Hidden Life as one in a string of recent films that have paid homage to the light which the darkness hath not overcome. In 2005 came the release of Joyeux Noelle and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. The first film tells the true story of the Christmas truce of 1914, the second the true story of a group of university students who, deeply motivated by their Christian faith, distributed anti-Nazi leaflets in 1943 in hopes of awakening the consciences of their fellow men. 

We have these stories of Christian witness amidst moral collapse, and in the actual transcript of the trial of Sophie Scholl, which the film is based on, we have a twentieth century example of what Jesus seems to have meant when he said: “When they take you before synagogues and before rulers and authorities, do not worry about how or what your defense will be or about what you are to say. For the holy Spirit will teach you at that moment what you should say” (Luke 12:11-12). A young woman speaks Gospel truth to worldly kings, judges, lawyers and military commanders, men of power, who think they hold her fate in their hands. (She, through the grace of God, knows better.) Sophie was beheaded six months before Franz Jagerstatter. She was only 22. 

The blockbuster hit Hacksaw Ridge (2016), directed by Catholic Mel Gibson, tells the story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist who served on the front lines as a medic in World War II and, despite the bombs, blasts, flamethrowers and machine gun fire, refused to arm himself or to kill: He ended up not only surviving but winning the Medal of Honor for his heroic (and some say miraculous) deeds. 

The next question we need to start asking is: Why didn’t more Christians do what Franz did, what Sophie did, what Desmond did, what Ben did? I’m afraid we can’t chalk it up to human fear or frailty. It’s a serious problem within the Church. Jesus told his disciples: “Go and teach them all that I have commanded you.” Are the Christian Churches, especially the Catholic Church, really teaching what Jesus commanded?  

Finally, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI: “Today we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a just war.”

For the record, Ben Salmon asked this question long ago, and answered it, before Hitler, before the nuclear age, before The Pentagon Papers, before all that. Ben Salmon said: There is No Just War. Worldly kingdoms are entirely perishable. They come and they go. They rise; they fall. Christ, on the other hand, is “the Alpha and the Omega” (Rev 1:8). His kingdom is eternal and he assures us that he will be “with us until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). Are we with Him? One kingdom has the power of violence; the other has the power of Christ-like love. Franz and Ben were modern day prophets. We ignore them at our peril. 

Copyright © 2020 Ellen Finnigan

Bishop Barron’s Clever Dismissal

The following was written by Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy:


This eight minute video presentation by Bishop Robert Barron is an example of the clever dismissal of Jesus’ teaching of Nonviolent Love of friends and enemies, which the average Catholic is subjected to ceaselessly in thousands of different ways by the violence justifying institutional Church through its senior personnel and its various avenues of communication. It is a example of the traditional ecclesiastical tactic of damning Gospel Nonviolence by faint praise, saying—in stark opposition to Jesus’ “new commandment”—that all sane minded, realistic Christians certainly do not want all Christians to be nonviolent, although it is nice to have a few Christians around who follow that Way in order to remind us what heaven will be like.


In this video Cardinal George and Bishop Barron have strayed a long way from what  Jesus teaches in the Gospels. Their statements equating celibacy with Gospel Nonviolence are erroneous and meant to teach the majority of Christians to ignore Jesus’ teaching of nonviolence, while they give it a backhanded tribute.

To undo some of their obfuscation it must be stated without equivocation that celibacy is not the will of God as revealed by Jesus in the Gospels, but Nonviolent Love of friends and enemies is. Celibacy is an option within the will of God as revealed by Jesus. Violence and enmity— the quintessential components of every war—are explicitly rejected as options within the will of God as revealed by Jesus, who is God Incarnate. Contrary to Bishop Barron’s talk rejecting Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels Nonviolent Love of friends and enemies in imitation of Jesus is not an option granted to any Christian by Jesus. The analogy of Barron and George comparing celibacy with Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence is an invalid, self-serving, misleading and anti-evangelical effort. It appears to be the work not of two learned Christians who do not know that Nonviolent Love is a teaching of Jesus applicable to all Christians at all times, but rather the work of two highly educated Christians who do not want to know and/or to admit it, and who want to proselytize others into following a non-existing just war Jesus as they follow a never existing just war Jesus—as if there were spiritual safety in numbers.

Their duplicitousness in proselytizing is chilling because while comparing nonviolence in the Church to celibacy in the Church and simultaneously effusively praising both, their statements in the minds of most Catholics, marginalize to the position of useful Catholic gadflies, those who proclaim Jesus’ teaching of Nonviolence Love of friends and enemies. Their statements are intended to obscure or undermine the fact that those who proclaim Gospel Nonviolence are proclaiming, not an optional Church discipline, but rather an essential dimension of God, of Divine Love, of that power, the only power, which in truth saves. As the Catholic Biblical scholar, the late Rev. John L. McKenzie, wrote in his book The Power and the Wisdom (Imprimatur, 1966), “The power which destroys all other powers is the power of love, the love of God revealed and active in Jesus Christ. God revealed in Jesus that He loves man and will deliver him through love and through nothing else… Jesus presents in His words and life not only a good way of doing things, not only an ideal to be executed whenever it is convenient, but the only way of doing what He did.”

-Emmanuel Charles McCarthy

P.S. Daniel Berrigan, S.J. in following the Way of Nonviolence was not following Gandhi, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day as Robert Barron claims. He was following Jesus. There is an infinite difference between following the Creator and following another creature like yourself.

A Sheep Among Wolves: “Hacksaw Ridge”

Copyright © 2016 Ellen Finnigan

Originally published on November 4, 2016 on LewRockwell.com.

A Sheep Among Wolves

Desmond Doss was a real man but he seems more like the stuff of legend. Being a bit of a loner, small in stature, and meek, he was probably the last person anyone would ever peg for a potential war hero. He enlisted in the Army during the second world war because he believed in the cause. He only had one condition: He would not carry a gun. Make that two: He would not work on Saturdays. Though he did not receive an extensive formal education as a young man in West Virginia, he did receive excellent spiritual formation as a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church: He took the Ten Commandments seriously, all of them, without exception or qualification, including “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and “Keep Holy the Sabbath.” He wanted to serve his country but a way that was consistent with the Way (the Truth and the Life). He wanted to be a medic. The military assigned him to a rifle company, naturally, figuring the heat of peer pressure would iron him out. Clearly they did not know the depths of character, courage, and conviction in Desmond Doss. They could not yet imagine how a man who refused to touch a gun could put up such a fight!

The incredible Hacksaw Ridge, the new film directed by Mel Gibson, tells amazing story of Desmond Doss, his decision to enlist, his difficult training and his unbelievable feats on the battlefield, for which he was eventually awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor. I attended an advanced screening of the film and had dangerously high expectations. I’m a Gibson fan, and I’d heard the film had received a 10-minute long standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival. I had watched the 2006 documentary based on Doss’s life, The Conscientious Objector (available on YouTube), and enthusiastically assigned it to my honors students after we read The Iliad and the The Aeneid this fall, thinking I had found the perfect thing with which they could compare-and-contrast the pagan idea of heroism.

With a few small reservations, I thought the film was excellent, but I have a few predictions as to how it will be received by the Catholic media, which has disappointed me in the past. My prediction is that the Catholic “Right” will promote this film under the banner of “religious liberty”, the Catholic “Left” under the cause of “conscientious objection,” but I believe both are reductive and shortchange the complexity of the film and the person of Desmond Doss. The “religious liberty” camp thinks that the great postmodern struggle is between Christians and secular society, but it was not the atheists, socialists, humanists, or communists who put Desmond Doss through hell in the military, who insulted him, persecuted him, and uttered every kind of evil against him, falsely. It was his fellow God-fearing, red-blooded Americans, whom we can assume were mostly Christians. While the other men were flipping through nudie mags in the barracks, Doss was studying Scripture. At first they dismissed him as a hick, a prude, a coward; grown men would throw shoes at his head while he was trying to pray. He was eventually ostracized, humiliated, harassed, and even beaten. His superiors tried to get him discharged for mental illness. They court martialed him. One soldier even threatened: “If you try to go to war with me, I’ll shoot you myself!”

“I don’t think I could have taken it,” said one man who knew Desmond Doss at boot camp. “I would have told them all to go to hell! But Doss—he never got angry.” In the documentary, his comrades recall Doss’ gentle demeanor, his lack of interest in retaliation, and his unwavering commitment to personal prayer. The actor who plays him, Andrew Garfield, should win an Oscar. He portrayed perfectly the endearing earnestness, quiet strength, and undeniable mystique of this most unusual man. Vince Vaughn adds the perfect touch of humor in his role as a sergeant who doesn’t hate Doss so much as find him incredibly exasperating. When Doss’ superiors would snarl and ask who the hell he thought he was and why he thought he was so special and why he wouldn’t just go home, Doss would respond, humbly, by saying that in a world that was falling apart, he didn’t see anything wrong with someone trying to put a small piece of it back together. He wanted to serve his country. He wanted to serve them.

And this is where he doesn’t quite fit the profile of the typical “conscientious objector.” When the military tried to send him to a conscientious objector camp, he insisted on going to war! Doss believed that the United States was fighting for freedom, including religious freedom, and that it was an honor to serve his God and his country. He wanted to serve–but in a way that was consistent with his beliefs. His beliefs were very simple: He couldn’t picture Jesus killing people, but he could picture Jesus with a first aid kit. He preferred to be called a “conscientious cooperator.” He thought he could be just as good a soldier as anyone else, only: “Where other people are going to be taking life, I’m going to be saving it.”

This is what makes him a hero for our times. So many folks try to say that going to war or not going to war, which is always couched in terms of defending something or not defending something, is a choice between “doing something” and “doing nothing.” It’s the old false dichotomy of fight or flight. Either you fight, or evil runs rampant in this world. Jesus did neither and Desmond Doss shows us that a third way is possible. One of my favorite anecdotes in the documentary is when Doss says that his superiors tried to convince him of the errors of his ways by posing an age-old question, a hypothetical akin to: “What if someone was raping your grandmother and you had a gun?”

Desmond Doss replied simply: “I wouldn’t have a gun!

And that’s the truth.

To the screening they invited people from the religious community as well as the military community. The publicists who introduced the film explained, in warm, beige tones, that it was a film about faith — and heroes. Polite applause. It is understandable that marketing execs would want to cast as wide a net as possible, but to say that this is about faith is to gloss over the obvious challenge it presents to people of faith. Faith in what? In the words of Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, the central question of all religion is: What kind of god is God, and what does God expect of us, if anything? The fact that Desmond Doss answers this question differently than his fellow Christians is the very thing that creates the conflict at the center of the story; it is the engine of the drama. We don’t watch Hacksaw Ridge, rapt, in order to find out if our hero will successfully vanquish the enemy, because our hero for a change has absolutely no interest in that, either the enemies he faces on the battlefield – the “Japs” – or the enemies he creates in his own tribe. We watch to see if our hero will be defeated and defeat seems likely: Either he will stand by his convictions, run onto the battlefield, and lose his life (in this world), thereby proving he is a fool, or he will pick up the sword, save his life (in this world), and admit that his convictions were foolish. What other outcome could we reasonably expect? What other outcome could we possible imagine?

“Nobody can understand what he did on that ridge,” said one of his comrades, “nobody.” I could talk to you all day long and you could never understand it. You would never believe it.”

In Guam, stories began to circulate about a medic who would doggedly pursue the wounded and try to help them– no matter what. (He was eventually allowed to go into battle as a medic unarmed.) It didn’t matter who they were, how badly they were wounded or how badly they had treated him. Doss would help them, often ignoring the rules of triage. His motto was: “As long as there is life, there is hope.” But the depths of bravery, compassion, and fortitude in Desmond Doss weren’t fully comprehended until Okinawa, where his actions on “Hacksaw Ridge,” a 400-foot cliff so named because of the Japanese ability to chop up Allied forces and spit them out, became legendary, maybe even miraculous.

After the screening, a man who was a friend of Desmond Doss’ spoke to us and assured us of the film’s accuracy. I trust it is accurate, but it didn’t strike me as complete. Obviously, every screenplay has limitations. They can’t include everything, but there are things in the documentary that were left out of the film, or at least not highlighted in the film, and they are important to understand the full picture.

In the film, Doss is shown being incredibly brave under fire, but the filmmakers do not convey just how impossible it was for him to survive or to do what he did. He was one of three men to hang the cargo net from the ledge of the Hacksaw Ridge. He volunteered. (In the film, if I remember correctly, he arrives and the net has already been secured.) You see: to hang the net was impossible, because you would have to get up on the ledge where the Japanese had clear lines of sight from their fortified positions. To maximize your chances of survival, you had to stay low to the ground, crawl, and even then, your chances were scant. There is a photograph of Desmond Doss standing up — silhouetted — on the ridge. He didn’t get shot. The guns were silent while he was up there. Why? How? Nobody could explain it.

The net allowed the Americans to scale the cliff, from which point they could try to take the ridge. They climbed up and got driven back down twice before they succeeded. On top, it was a bloodbath. Not only did Desmond Doss run out time and time again into enemy fire, defying all odds of being shot and killed, or captured and tortured, but as a man of slight stature, he did what Arnold Schwarzenegger couldn’t do in his heyday: He singlehandedly dragged and/or carried 75 men from up to 125 feet away to the cliff, secured them with a special knot, and lowered them down – again, singlehandedly — over the 400-foot cliff to safety. He saved 75 men in twelve hours, which meant he saved one man every 10 minutes. Desmond Doss’ friend who spoke at the screening said that Desmond once told him that after he had carried and lowered the first three men, he had absolutely no physical strength left. None. He just kept repeating the prayer: “Please, Lord, let me get one more. Please, Lord, let me get one more.”

The speaker at the screening also told us that Andrew Garfield, who played Desmond Doss, who is a lanky guy like Doss, was taught the “fireman’s carry,” which is the way Doss would have been trained to carry big, heavy, injured, helpless men. After the first few takes, they had to call in a stunt double. He wasn’t strong enough to pull it off take after take after take. As one of Doss’ comrades pointed out, many soldiers receive the Medal of Honor for one act of extreme bravery in war; but in Doss’ case, the Medal was awarded for things he did over and over and over again. There are stories about a Japanese soldier who remembered having the American medic in his crosshairs; when he went to shoot him, the gun jammed. There are stories of Japanese soldiers being found with American bandages on them.

What was happening on that ridge? How were these things possible? Could it have something to do with what Desmond Doss, as conscientious cooperator, was cooperating with, rather than what he was objecting to?

Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy begins his book All Things Flee Thee for Thou Fleest Me* with a quote by Jacques Ellul:

“God intervenes radically only in response to a radical attitude on the part of the believer – radical not in regard to political means but in regard to faith; and the believer who is radical in his faith has rejected all means other than those of faith.”

The question of violence is a question of means. Desmond Doss probably shared many of the same ends as other soldiers of faith: to stop evil, to stop evil from spreading, to save lives, to bring about peace, to save his soul, to get to heaven. But the difference between Desmond Doss and the other soldiers is that Desmond Doss rejected all means other than those of faith, specifically faith in the God, the God who is Love. This is because the Seventh Day Adventist Church had taught Desmond Doss that the means of violence were not available to him as a Christian and were not compatible with Love. When mainstream Catholics understand this about Desmond Doss, they understand at once that he is an “other” kind of Christian, with a different faith. Is it a different faith?

This is another important question.

The epic heroes of ancient literature are warriors and they are men of faith. Achilles, Hektor, Odysseus, Aeneas: they believed in the supernatural, they had certain ideas about the nature of the divine, they engaged in religious rituals and practices meant to appease the gods and win their favor. Aeneas is described by Virgil as being “patently pious,” pietas being a Roman virtue that meant duty to man, God and country. The faithful and pious would be rewarded by the gods, often with military victories. The gods could be violent, deceptive, and vengeful; to be godlike was to partake of the awful power of the gods, to exercise might. When these heroes succeeded in battle, they believed the gods were on their side; when they lost, they assumed the gods had forsaken them. They had faith, but a certain kind of faith in a certain kind of god. The pagan gods could be drafted.

Desmond Doss was a social pariah until he became a kind of mascot. In Okinawa his Bible, his personal prayer, and his faith were no longer things to be laughed at but to be embraced and rallied behind. It is a fact that the third big siege on Hacksaw Ridge happened on a Saturday, May 5, 1945. The men asked Desmond Doss if he would go with them. Doss said maybe, but he would need time to pray about it first. The story goes that the whole unit, or company, was held up on account of Desmond Doss needing to pray. They waited, and hoped. After praying Doss decided that this was the kind of work he could do on a Saturday and he went with them. Perhaps I was being overly defensive, but in the film they almost made this decision look like a compromise. It wasn’t. Desmond Doss was tempted on various occasions to kill in defense of self or others, but he didn’t: He said that if he compromised once, he was likely to compromise again. The closest he came was when enemy troops threw a grenade into a ditch where he was trying to help some wounded men: He did pick it up and throw it back out. His decision to go with his unit on that Saturday was not a compromise: It was perfectly in line with the story of Jesus healing on the Sabbath.

On that day they took the ridge. Many people attribute this victory to “faith,” either the faith of Desmond Doss or the faith he stirred in others after they began to believe that he had something like the power of God behind him. What’s wrong with this picture?

In the film, it appears that the very same God who Desmond Doss was praying to, who Doss believed would tell him, “If you love me, you won’t kill anybody,” who Doss believed he was glorifying with his works of courage, compassion, strength, and love, and who may have helped Desmond Doss to comfort, heal and save all those people, is the very same god who then turned around and helped Doss’ comrades to burn Japanese people’s faces off. If we are being honest about it, these are two different gods, and two different faiths. It is rare that they are seen in such stark relief as they are in Hacksaw Ridge.

Where one asks, “Please, Lord, just let me get one more,” and means save one more life, the other asks, “Please, Lord, let me get one more,” and means take one more life.

Where one says, “Love your enemies,” the other says, “Protect your friends.”

One says “Put down thy sword,” the other says “Pick it up.”

Where one says, “Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, whole soul, whole strength, and whole mind,” the other says, “Hate your enemy with your whole heart, whole soul, whole strength, and whole mind.”

One preaches against enmity, the other assumes it.

To help the enemy in one is considered love, to help the enemy in the other is considered treason.

Where one relies on the power of prayer, trusting completely and totally in Jesus, and willing to love nonviolently both friends and enemies until death, the other relies on the power of violence, trusting in government and is willing to kill enemies even unto death.

To live in the spirit of one of these gods is to bring about love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness; to live in the spirit of the other is to bring about what we see happening on Hacksaw Ridge.

The Catholic Church tries to tell us that these are the same faiths and the same gods, two sides of the same coin if you will. What makes this film so important is that it gives us a concrete portrayal of a larger conflict that has been going on within Christianity for 1,700 years, not only among different sects and churches but also within Catholicism itself. In “A Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace” (1993), the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops tells us: “The Christian tradition possesses two ways to address conflict: nonviolence and just war.” Where the Church sees a “dual tradition,” more and more people are beginning to see a house divided against itself. Insofar as the Catholic Church “possesses” the tradition of nonviolence, we agree with the Protestant denominations that have come to be known as the “peace churches” (The Quakers, Mennonites, etc.), but insofar as we teach what – frankly — Jesus never taught, by word or deed, namely, Just War Theory (now called Just Defense Theory), we part with them. The Catholic Church tries to tell us that there is no conflict between these two ways of dealing with conflict, that these two ways are not opposed to one another, nor is either way opposed to the Way of Jesus, in whom we Christians live, move, and have our being, that they are separate but equal, equally holy, equally good, equally acceptable. Yet, should one dare to speak out in favor of nonviolence, one would be no more welcome in the Catholic Church than Desmond Doss was in his rifle company. Trust me, I know!

This conflict is currently playing out at the highest levels of the Catholic Church. In April of 2016, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace at the Vatican and the international Catholic peace organization Pax Christi held a conference, called “Nonviolence and Just Peace: Contributing to the Catholic Understanding of and Commitment to Nonviolence” and included 80 participants from around the world who represented a broad spectrum of experiences in peacebuilding and active nonviolence in the face of violence and war. The participants called on Pope Francis to consider writing an encyclical letter, or some other “major teaching document,” reorienting the church’s teachings on violence. The “Just War” Christians have been freaking out ever since in fear that the Holy Catholic Church, under the “leftist” leadership of Pope Francis, will abandon the teachings on Just Defense, which everyone knows provides a crucial loophole in Jesus’ teachings, through which the Christian can ensure the earthly protection of himself, his family, his friends, his country. It would be a nightmare to deprive Christians of recourse to violence, right? They would be sitting ducks with nothing but their “faith” to protect them in a hostile and violent world. And I believe in this context the Just War camp would put “faith” in quotation marks, because what kind of faith is that stupid and foolish?

Hacksaw Ridge is indeed a film about faith, but not in the way the publicists meant it. As Jacques Ellul puts it: “The appeal to and use of violence in Christian action increase in exact proportion to the decrease in faith…Unbelief is the true root of the Christian championship of violence.”

Let’s hope that the film Hacksaw Ridge can teach American kids what the Catholic Church has failed to teach them. One of my students, after watching the documentary, exclaimed: “And he wasn’t even a Catholic!” This sweet child imagined that someone so good and so holy could only be the product of the one, true faith. It took my whole heart, my whole strength, my whole mind to refrain from replying sarcastically: “Thank God for that, because if Desmond Doss had been raised Catholic, he would have had little to no chance of becoming Desmond Doss.”

Copyright © 2016 Ellen Finnigan

The Joyful Mysteries

The following meditations on the mysteries of the rosary were written by Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy. 



The First Joyful Mystery: The Annunciation

In the Mystery of the Annunciation three “Yes”es are necessary. Each “Yes” has to be spoken in the context of a potentially horrific future.

Mary must say “Yes” to carrying Jesus in her womb for nine months, and in her heart forever. Her “Yes” would bring with it the probability of being set aside by Joseph, to whom she was betrothed, because he would know the child was not his. Being set aside by Joseph would bring with it either death—for she had ostensibly committed adultery, and the just punishment for adultery was stoning—or else a life of shame and of being ostracized by her “spiritual betters.”

Joseph must say “Yes” to that which his reason and nurturing would insist he say, “No.” From his human perspective at the moment, Mary is guilty of adultery. If he does not divorce her or marry her but instead exposes her to the Law, she—and hence the child she is carrying in her womb—will almost inevitably be stoned to death as her just punishment (Dt 22:21-24). This is important because Joseph’s “Yes” is not the “Yes” of justice under the Law; it is the “Yes” of righteousness, the choice of doing out of love—and contrary to his own interests—God’s mysterious and unfathomable will. This “Yes” of Joseph’s is the earthly father of Jesus saying, “Thy will be done, not mine,” thirty-three years before his son, also against His own earthly interests, would say the same thing.

And the third, “Yes,” is God’s. God, “who is love (agapé), must say “Yes” to becoming a human being, a member of a humanity long ravaged by and long subject to every manifestation of evil capable of expressing itself through the choices, including the choices of violence and enmity, of these same human beings. In Jesus, God, “who is love (agapé) must be the human incarnation of that agapé—unconditional, nonviolent, self-sacrificing love for all, friends, strangers, and enemies alike. This Divine choice—to become incarnate as a human being in an environment in which legions upon legions of evil dynamics are operating within human beings and within the institutions they have erected, and to become human with only the power of love (agapé) available to confront and conquer these diabolical forces—is a choice that infinitely surpasses any understandings of justice and of reality. It is a Mystery that is beyond human fathoming because such a choice will inevitably result in a life of having to struggle to love, having to suffer to love, and having to die at the hands of other human beings to love—as God must and will always love on earth He loves in heaven.

In the Mystery of the Annunciation, from the perspective of human beings in their spiritually fallen state, these three “Yes”es defy all notions of what is reasonable, even reason itself. Yet all three “Yes”es were freely given—and of what follows from these three gifts of “Yes,” we are all aware.

The Second Joyful MysteryThe Visitation


We are told that, when Mary came into the physical presence of Elizabeth, “the babe in my womb [Elizabeth’s] leaped for joy.” (Lk 1: 41). Again, the Visitation is a Mystery that underscores the profundity of the Christ-event from the earliest moments of God’s incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth. How does a child in the womb communicate anything to a child in another womb such that the second child would be moved to respond? And, not simply to respond, but to respond with such a superabundance of joy: “leaped.” The awe and joy of the presence of the glory of God, the Shekinah, experienced by John, a child in the womb of Elizabeth, who comes into the proximate physical presence of Jesus in the womb of Mary, points to a Mystery, not separated from but infinitely more wondrous than even the great mystery of a human life in the womb. It points to the daughter of Abraham, Mary, being The Ark of the Covenant, the complete fulfillment of everything the Ark was and represented in Hebrew Scriptures. Or, more precisely, Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant.

The Ark of the Covenant was the sign of God’s real presence among His people. In Jesus the Christ, born of Mary, God was really present among his people in an even more direct way. The Ark of Hebrew Scriptures held the Word of God written in stone, the Ten Commandments. Mary bore the Word of God “made flesh” in her womb. The Ark of Hebrew Scriptures held the manna from heaven.  Mary’s womb held the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ (Jn 6:48-50).

Mary as the Ark of the Covenant, the New Covenant, in the Visitation is not an interpretation of the Gospel artificially place onto the Gospel. It is a truth presented by the New Testament writers themselves.

How can this be, since I have no relations with a man,” Mary at the Annunciation asks the Angel Gabriel regarding the birth of a son by her. Gabriel replies that it would happen by the power of God: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Lk 1:35). The Greek word translated “overshadow” is used nowhere else in the New Testament. In fact, it occurs only one other place in Scripture, if we refer to the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, which Luke was familiar with. The book of Exodus says Moses had the Ark of the Covenant placed in a great tent that was to serve as the dwelling-place of God among His people. It then reads, “Then the cloud covered the meeting tent, and the glory of the LORD filled the Dwelling. Moses could not enter the meeting tent, because the cloud settled down upon it and the glory of the LORD filled the Dwelling” (see Ex 40:34-35). In the Greek Old Testament, the one Luke knew, the word translated “settled down upon” in English is the same word that is translated into English as “overshadow” Luke is telling us that the presence of the power and glory of God, the Shekinah, will settle down upon, overshadowed, dwell in Mary just as the power of God overshadowed, settled down upon, the Ark of the Covenant and dwelt in the great tent.

There is much more, e.g., when David finally is able to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, it says, “He leaped before it.” That is the same word in Greek as is used to described John’s actions in the womb of Elizabeth when she meets Mary is who now carrying Jesus in her womb. But the basic question that the Mystery of the Visitations and the symbolism of Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant in it present to the Christian, perhaps revolves around this thought. Wherever the ancient Israelites went, they followed the Ark of the Covenant. If Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant, how should we as Christians, people of the New Covenant, be following her? The answer to that questions is found in Mary’s last words and only command in the Gospels: “Do whatever He tells you“?


The Third Joyful MysteryThe Birth of Jesus, the Christ

The Baby Jesus—who is the Bread of Life for all humanity, and who, many years in the future at His Last Supper on earth will take bread into His hands and say to His Apostles and disciples, “Take, eat. This is my body”—is born in the little town of Bethlehem whose name in Hebrew, bet lehem, means “House of Bread.” He is laid in a manger from which animals derive their daily nourishment in order to live. What a Mystery: Born in a town called the House of Bread and dying loving His lethal enemies, so that He could be the Bread that nourishes human beings along the Way of becoming one with the Holy One, along the Way of Eternal Life. People can now freely choose to be and to become what they can now freely choose to consume, namely, the Bread of Life for the spiritual nourishment and sanctification of others and self. People can now receive the Bread from heaven that is offered to them in the Person, Words and Deeds of  the Word of God Incarnate, Jesus, as well as when they receive the consecrated Bread at the re-presentation of the Last Supper, at the Holy Eucharist. What a Mystery! What had been exclusively the Bread of Angels in Eternity is, since the birth of Jesus the Christ in the House of Bread, now also the Bread of human beings in time. But God does not force His gift of the Bread of Eternal Life down any one’s throat. He simply daily offers it: “Take, eat.” And then promises, “Whoever eats of this Bread will live forever” (Jn 6:35-51).


The Fourth Joyful Mystery: The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

“God, here he is. He is yours.” This is what Mary and Joseph are saying to God by bringing Jesus to the Temple. They, as faithful Jews, are following the Law of Moses: “Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord.”The Presentation is about trustfully handing Jesus back to God for God’s purposes. Then something unexpected and mystifying happens. Simeon prophesies to Mary, “You yourself a sword shall pierce.”

In Christian spirituality, it has often been said that on Golgotha there are two altars, where two people freely and nonviolently sacrificed their lives in order to do God’s will. First, there is the Altar of the Cross on which Jesus agonizingly fulfills His Gethsemane commitment: “Father if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done.” Then there is the Altar beneath the Cross, where Mary, Jesus’ mother, agonizingly fulfills her Nazareth commitment from long ago: “Be it done unto me according to your word.”

Can anyone doubt that the anguish that the mother of Jesus suffered as her Son was beaten, brutalized, tortured, tormented, and ultimately killed was anything less than monstrous and nightmarish? Can anyone doubt that, when the lance was thrust into the heart of Jesus, it also pierced the heart of His mother, bringing with it heartbreaking and mind-breaking pain and grief? Can anyone doubt that such is the suffering of every mother and father, regardless of the age of their child, who sees or learns that their child has been torn apart in body, mind, and/or spirit by the violence and enmity, callousness, indifference and mercilessness of other human beings?

What a Mystery that the Mother of Jesus, the Mother of the Christ, the Mother of God, the Mother of the Savior of humanity, has herself—like all other mothers and fathers whose precious children have been treated as worthless pieces of trash by other human beings—had to suffer the ravages of hell brought to earth through men and women in the service of the Satanic spirits of violence and enmity.

As we mediate on Mary as a mother in sorrow, whose heart a “sword has pierced,” our thoughts and prayers and deeds should go toward all mothers who sorrowfully suffer because of what others have done to their precious child, whether he or she be five months oldest or fifty-five years old.

There is an integral relationship between Mary having been a mother in sorrow on earth and Mary being the Mother of Mercy in heaven, whose Son performed His first miracle for a bride and groom at Cana because His mother in her empathy for their distress requested it of Him.


The Fifth Joyful Mystery: The Finding of Jesus in the Temple

 “When His parents saw him, they were astonished, and His mother said to Him, ‘Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been searching for you sorrowfully’” (Lk 2:48). And so would it be with any mother and father who had lost their child in a department store crowd, at a ball game, or in a snowstorm; they would search for him or her sorrowfully. Mary and Joseph’s concern here is not for Jesus the Messiah, but for Jesus their beloved child. They dread that something awful might have happened to him.

When one person loves another and that someone is hurt, the person who loves him or her is also hurt. It is not the same hurt, but it may be a more terrible hurt. Love generates empathy unlike any other experience in the human situation. This universally embedded truism is a piece of the Mysteries of Creation and of Redemption in which we live.

It is therefore a fact of life that it is impossible to harm only one person. When you harm someone, all those who love the harmed person will also be harmed. When, for example, one kills another human being, one inflicts suffering and kills forever something in each and every person who loves that human being. It is only calculatingly nurtured, normalized superficiality that dupes people into thinking that the only person injured when they inflict harm upon another is the one on whom they are directly inflicting the harm. The experience of each and every one of us tells us that this is a lie. The sorrow and suffering that tears one person’s life to pieces, tears to shreds the lives and hearts of all who love him or her. Remembering this, and nurturing the habitus of mind that continually reinforces that remembrance is necessary for putting on the mind and heart needed for Christlike merciful love towards all, friends and enemies, great and small. Especially is this essential for living as Jesus desires His chosen disciples to live in a society where motivating and teaching children from the toddler stage onward how to play and enjoy making believe they are killing other human beings is a mainstream big and profitable business.

-Emmanuel Charles McCarthy

Aug. 9, Ave Crux, Spes Unica

This homily was delivered by Fr. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, at the close of the Forty Day Fast for the Truth of Christian Nonviolence at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City, August 9, 1997. The end of the fast commemorates the date in 1942 that marks the execution Edith Stein (Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) by the Nazis at Auschwitz.

Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross is Jesus’ prophetic gift to His Churches because she voluntarily gives up all the accouterments of worldly power and wholeheartedly embraces the “powerless,” unrealistic, vulnerable Cross of Christ-like love. She says, “Ave Crux,” “Welcome Cross,” not out of ignorance of alternatives nor out of defeatism. She exclaims with open arms, “Ave Crux” because she knows it is “spes unica,” “our only hope” – the only power that can help, that can save.

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