“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” (Matt 5:43-45)
There’s been talk about the recent tragic slaying of one priest and the wounding of another at Mater Misericordiae Mission in Phoenix, AZ. For those who haven’t heard, here is what happened:
Father Joseph Terra, FSSP, responded to noises coming from the mission courtyard after hours, and was assaulted by Gary Moran, who beat him with a rod. Moran had been released from prison in April, after a serving a ten-year sentence for stabbing a homeowner during another robbery.
When Father Terra left and returned with a revolver from his residence, Moran wrestled the gun away before Father Kenneth Walker arrived to help. Father Terra then blacked out and later awoke to find Father Walker critically injured from several gunshot wounds.
Father Walker died the same night, after receiving the Last Rites from Father Terra, who remains severely wounded. Their community is mourning the loss of a beloved and faithful servant. One parishioner said of both priests, “They are just such holy men,” and “They have lived a profound life of prayer. They understood so much.”
That is beautiful, but nothing could display the fruits of prayer better than Father Terra’s response to Moran. The Los Angeles Times reports,
People clapped, gasped and cried when a man pushed Father Joseph Terra into the room full of parishioners at St. Catherine of Siena on Monday.
Still in a wheelchair after being wounded last week during a break-in at Mater Misericordiae Mission that left a fellow priest dead, Terra didn’t move much. His hands were heavily bandaged, his eyes were bruised and swollen, and the top of his head was marked by fresh scars and dried blood.
The 56-year-old struggled to smile as well-wishers lined up to whisper in his ear. When asked about the man who is accused of injuring him and of killing Father Kenneth Walker, 28, Terra spoke softly.
“I have forgiven him,” he said.
“I have forgiven him,” said Father Terra, while still recovering from his injuries. About the man who killed his brother-priest. Who would have killed him if things had just gone a little more wrongly.
The Southern Catholic novelist and short-story writer, Flannery O’Connor, was Rembrandt with prose. Her characters all had a familiar earthiness and a peculiarly individual vitality. Just the opposite of modern cinematic trends, she almost never zoomed out over an epic horizon (think Spielberg and JJ Abrams). She never aimed to get the audience lost in the enormity of a scene. Instead, she magnified small details – faces, thoughts, emotions, posture, tattoos, everyday events that anyone could relate to – and used these to draw out complex dramas.
Details like bandaged hands, swollen eyes, and a head “marked by fresh scars and dried blood,” her stories often pivoted on unnerving violence. Once asked why she depicted the South as teeming with viciousness, O’Connor replied,
“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural . . . you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
From 1925 to 1964 (she died from lupus at the age of 39), she saw the waves of disorder that had come to wash over the world in her time, and she wanted people to understand the life and death stakes of grace, of choices that we all make and their consequences, in the midst of our real historical drama.
The murder of Father Walker (Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord) is like an O’Connor story come to life, and it startles me into recognizing my own condition.
That is to say, we all depend upon grace utterly, with varying degrees of openness, and I may have come so far, if you don’t mind me saying. But how often do I hold onto resentments and grudges? How often do I retaliate, thinking that I deserve better from life? How many times have I assumed, “This person doesn’t deserve my kindness or respect,” and acted accordingly?
Too many times and counting. This does not make it easier for others to be good. But, of course, there is always hope.
Father Terra now leads his community in prayer, not only for the soul of Father Walker, but undoubtedly for the soul of Moran, too. After all, if they don’t pray for him, who will? And who better to absorb the hatred and evil of this man and transform it into radiating love, who better than the Body of Christ?
Most of us are somewhat persecuted and somewhat persecutor. Sometimes the lines are clearly drawn, but not always or even usually. When Christ said to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” I think he meant this not only as a call to still higher virtue, but as a merciful penance for us and for our sins. We give to others what should have been given to us, because we each have taken from another what we don’t deserve.
As always, Christ leads the way, giving the mercy that he should have gotten, so that we might do the same for others.
“Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” “Crucifixion” by Josse Lieferinxe (working ca 1493–1503/08)