Torchbearers – Prophets and Saints for Dark Times

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 34, Spring 2005

The Church’s wonderful teaching about the Communion of Saints has long appealed to Catholic Workers. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, the founders, often spoke of the closeness of the saints and their involvement with their work here on earth. The late John Paul II elevated more saints to the level of official canonisation than the combined efforts of the previous 363 popes had before him. Many Christian organisations have their own special saints, honoured largely because of the similarity of their work and lives to the particular apostolate of the movement concerned.

The Catholic Worker movement is no exception. We honour particularly those who worked for justice and peace in their time and shed a prophetic light to the world. Some are honoured officially by the Church. Most are not as yet. Some may never be. But many of them have shared similar struggles to those we face and have sought to follow the teachings of Jesus in their time. For many of us, such saints can offer real incentive and encouragement indeed inspiration in times of difficulty.

In discussions recently, we have looked at some of these amazingly inspirational figures. They are legend. Some of them are New Zealanders, who lived the Gospel to its fullest as they understood it. Some are international figures and not Catholic but honoured and revered around the world as people of faith and holiness. All of them showed clear marks of the divine imprint on their lives and works. All of them stood out for their care for the poor and their struggle for justice in their time.

St Francis and St Clare of Assisi are iconic figures for most Catholic Workers (many of our houses and farms are named after them). St Maximilian, the soldier executed in the third century for refusing to serve in the Roman army, is another. But many modern figures also have appeal. Dietrich Bonhoffer, the Protestant pastor and writer, who stood up the Nazis in Germany’s Confessing Church, said ‘no’ and was executed in 1945; Cesar Chavez, the great Hispanic farm workers leader who carved a union out of a dispossessed people and held a flame of light for the most exploited of American labourers; Albert Luthuli, devout Christian and leader of the African National Congress who was mysteriously killed in 1967; Elizabeth Fry, the great 19th century Quaker prison reformer; Clarence Jordan, the prophetic leader against racism in the southern states of America and founder of the Koinonia Community in Georgia; Ammon Hennacy, anarchist and staunch Catholic Worker whose ‘one man revolution’ of non-violence and resistance to oppression is still remembered and honoured; St Maximilian Kolbe who was executed by the Nazis for resisting entry into the German army and going to war; the four US missionary martyrs Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan who were murdered by a death squad in El Salvador in 1980. These are among the many who have special appeal to those who live a Catholic Worker spirituality.

Below we publish a short calendar of prophets and saints , a list with a special NZ flavour. You may wish to add to the list.

January – Mohandas K. Gandhi (d. 30/1/1948) stands out as the greatest proponent of non-violence in the last millennium. Killed by an assassin, he led India to Independence and the world to a new understanding of what it means to live as a child of God and practise the teachings of non-violence. A committed Hindu all his life, he had a deep appreciation for the teachings of Jesus, often lamenting ‘what a different world it would be if only Christians believed Christ’s teachings.’

February – Dom Helder Camara (b.7/2/1902) The great archbishop of Recife, Brazil, who inspired a generation of people after the Second Vatican Council to see Christ in the poor and evil in the structures that oppressed them. He courageously exposed the economic and social structures of western capitalism which held his people and the majority of the world’s population in economic slavery. His special targets were western banks, especially the IMF and World Bank. He died 27 August 1999.

March – Whina Cooper (d. 26/3/1994) A devout Catholic all her life, Whina Cooper was destined to be a leader of her people from an early age. A founding president of the Maori Women’s Welfare League, she worked tirelessly for Maori women and children’s rights and welfare. She was probably best known for leading the hikoi from Cape Reinga in the far north to parliament in Wellington in 1975 with its demand that no more Maori land be taken. She was 97 when she died.

March – Archbishop Oscar Romero (d. 24/3/1980) Oscar Romero had a conservative background when installed as archbishop of San Salvador in 1977. A short time later his priest friend, Rutilio Grande, who worked with the poor was killed by a government death squad. For Romero it provided a critical moment of conversion. From then on, he spoke out courageously for the poor and against their oppressors in the ruling elite and the military and became the hope of a nation. Three years later, he was shot dead by a government agent while celebrating Mass.

April – Margaret Hassan (b. 18/4/1945) Born Margaret Fitzsimmons in Ireland in 1945, Margaret married Tahseen Ali Hassan, an Iraqi and lived in Baghdad for 30 years. She was a legend in that city for her work among the poor and dispossessed. A strong opponent of the first Gulf war, in 1990 she became director of the 60 strong Iraqi section of CARE International, a Brussels based relief organisation. She was a vocal critic of sanctions and briefed both the UN and UK government on their devastating effects. She refused to leave Iraq when war again came to her doorstep. She was taken hostage 19 October 2004 by a group of dissident Iraqis, and was summarily executed about 14 November 2004 by them. Her body was found in Fulluja.

April – Martin Luther King Jr (d. 4/4/1968) A Baptist preacher with a social conscience, Martin Luther King became the voice of freedom to the Afro-Amercian people, the descendants of slaves still suffering the effects of structured racism generations after emancipation. His writings and speeches, which inspired a generation to take to the streets to demand equality before the law and voting rights, had all the features of one of the great prophetic voices of history. His opposition to the Vietnam War added a new dimension to his vision and courage. He was assassinated by a gunman’s bullet in 1968, and died aged 39.

May – Peter Maurin (b 9/5/1877) Founder with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement, Peter Maurin was a man who lived like the poor. He owned no property and often literally gave away the coat off his back. He was a major theoretician behind the Catholic Worker with his emphasis on personalism, round table discussion for clarification of thought, and the formation of farming communities linked to city houses of hospitality. He died in 1949.

June – Suzanne Aubert (b 19/6/1835) Regarded by many as likely to be New Zealand’s first canonised saint, Suzanne Aubert came from France as a young woman with her uncle, Bishop Pompallier. She founded the Sisters of Compassion, whose mission initially was to Maori, to whom she was devoted. She later became famous in the way her sisters served the needs of the poor. She became a great advocate for them. When she died in 1925, ‘the whole of Wellington came to a standstill.’

August – Archibald Baxter (d 10/8/1970) A son of Otago soil, Archibald Baxter was born to a large family in 1881. Convinced as a young man of the immorality of war, he refused to be conscripted in 1915 for World War I. Imprisoned, he was sent to punishment in South Africa, France and England. In England, he suffered the humiliation of the No 1 Field Punishment – being strapped to a pole half naked and starved outside in the midst of all weathers. Eventually he was sent to the front lines of France, and only narrowly missed being killed as shells exploded all around him. After the war he returned and farmed near Brighton, outside Dunedin. A Christian and socialist all his life, he became a Catholic in adulthood.

September – E. F. Schumacher (d. 4/9/1977) Fritz Schumacher was a Christian economist who sought to understand and present economics from a personalist perspective. His prophetic classic Small is Beautiful presents the teaching that economics should be in the hands of the smallest unit feasible if the human family is to survive well and healthily and people are to have some say in their own destiny. It is still widely read.

October – James K. Baxter (d 22/10/1972) New Zealand’s foremost poet and social critic in his time, Hemi Baxter overcame his addiction to alcohol and became a fervent Catholic. Known internationally for his poetry, he made an even deeper imprint on the consciousness of the nation when he left his middle class job and founded a commune at Huriharama (Jerusalem) on the Whanganui River in 1969. There he lived a life of voluntary poverty and community with the ‘rejects’ of society – ex-prisoners, drug addicts, the dispossessed and those seeking a way forward. His biting critique of the nation’s mores stands testament today to a dream of God’s Kingdom in our time. He died suddenly on Labour Weekend 1972, aged 46.

November – Dorothy Day (d. 29/11/1980) – Co-founder of the Catholic Worker and editor of its monthly paper for 50 years, Dorothy Day was born on 8 November 1897. An adult convert to Catholicism, she was described at her death as ‘the most influential American Catholic of the century. ’ She lived a life of simplicity, pacifism and social activism particularly in relation to opposing war, racism and poverty and living non-violence, equality and simplicity. A daily Communicant, she was imprisoned several times for her stands. The Catholic Worker now has more than 100 houses and farms of hospitality worldwide in several countries.

November – Te Whiti o Rongomai (d. 18/11/1907) Long before Gandhi’s time, Te Whiti o Rongomai of Parihaka in Taranaki and his great compatriot Tohu Kakahi led a mass movement of non-violence by their people to resist government troops trying to take their land. For 12 years during the 1870s, they chose a response of passive resistance – by creatively ploughing and fencing confiscated land, changing survey pegs, digging up roads and planting crops including kumara in their place. Hundreds were imprisoned as the government suspended habeas corpus and sent them without trial to prisons all over New Zealand, where many died. Finally, on 5 November 1881, the government arrested and imprisoned Te Whiti and Tohu. Upon his release, Te Whiti, always a committed Christian, returned to Parihaka where he continued the struggle, although by then most of the land was lost. He died in 1907.

December – Thomas Merton (d. 10/12/1968). The son of a New Zealand-born father, Thomas Merton was born in France on 31 January 1915 and raised in England and the US, where he became the most famous Cistercian monk of the age through his informative and incisive writings. An icon of contemporary Christian thought for several decades, he was a leading writer on social conditions and justice issues. The Vietnam War, civil rights and the relentless poverty suffered by the world’s poor were constant social themes. He also wrote widely on non-violence and peace, prayer, the Church, and other ‘spiritual’ topics. He died suddenly while visiting Thailand, aged 53.

December – Phillip Berrigan (d. 6/12/2004) Born on 5 October 1923 and regarded by many as the most important US prophet in recent times, Phil Berrigan stood out against the tyranny of the US global expansion and in particular its militarism. A former soldier from World War II, he became a priest and later married Elizabeth McAllister and they formed Jonah House in Baltimore, a Christian community of resistance, still very operative. Phil was a natural leader, a wonderful writer, and a deeply serious Christian. He acted out no fewer than six Ploughshares acts of resistance to the arms race and war. Arrested more than 100 times, he spent more than 11 years in prison for his non-violent opposition to war, his latest sentence concluding only a year before he died.

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