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February 16, 2006Joan Chittister: From Where I Stand
Vol. 3, No. 33

 A warning: Watch your language
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Joan Chittister is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer on topics of justice, peace, human rights, women's issues, and contemporary spirituality in the Church and in society. She presently serves as the co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the United Nations, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, especially in the Middle East. A speech communications theorist, Sister Joan's most recent books include The Way We Were (Orbis) and Called to Question (Sheed & Ward), a First Place CPA 2005 award winner. She is founder and executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality in Erie.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

Small stories with major ramifications have a way of escaping us. We see what we're looking for and so, too often, miss what we only come to realize months later -- sometimes years later -- should have been a signal to us then of serious social change, perhaps even of danger.

We may have had one of those stories this week. The headline, a small one, came under the category of "more international headlines" that few people have the time or the interest to pursue. I stumbled on it by accident. Looking for one topic, I found another.

At one level, it was at best a sad but simple story: a priest had been shot in his church by a 16-year-old boy. It happens every once in a while: a rectory gets robbed; a priest gets mugged; a drug addict, high and raging, shoots at anything in sight and hits a priest. I almost skipped the story.

Then I noticed something different about it. This particular priest had been shot in retaliation, some said, for the publication of the now infamous newspaper cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that have been printed in the public press around the world. As a result, tensions are running high everywhere. Muslims and Christians are sparring with one another over editorial sketches, the meaning of which neither side really understands in the context of the other's culture.

At another level, however, the story had ominous overtones of escalating religious warfare.

The priest, Fr. Andrea Santoro, an Italian recently transferred from the diocese of Rome to Turkey, was looking forward, his letters say, to beginning a new phase of his priesthood -- outside a big city, outside of his own country, outside the West. By all accounts, Andrea Santoro was a good man, a good priest, the kind who does the daily work of the priesthood with warm and gentle openness.

But Fr. Santoro got caught in the crossfire of global politics. He happened to be the one standing there when a Muslim boy, agitated by the growing anti-Christian, anti-Western climate around him, simply walked into the church where Fr. Santoro knelt in prayer and fired two shots, point-blank, into his chest.

The boy, his father said, has mental problems and has been seeing a psychiatrist.

So far, so plain. But then I noticed something in the article that set off an alarm in me that went all the way back to the Crusades.

Cardinal Camillo Ruini, newly confirmed president of the Italian episcopal conference and vicar of the diocese of Rome, presiding at the Santoro funeral, called for opening the cause for Santoro's beatification and canonization of the Italian missionary "as soon as possible." (CWNews.com, Feb. 10)

In the face of the tragic death of so good a man, the sentiments are understandable. Even inevitable.

But then Cardinal Ruini said something else. "I am persuaded," he added, "that all the elements of Christian martyrdom are present in the sacrifice of Fr. Andrea." That's when I got concerned.

The essence of Christian martyrdom, defined between the persecutions of Nero (64 A.D.) and the reign of Decius, brooked no doubt. Martyrs were those who, in the face of civil and official persecution and death, refused to renounce the faith, to apostatize, to recant, to offer sacrifice to idols or worship to emperors. They were killed by the state because they refused to denounce the Christian religion in order to follow the state religion. They were not killed by someone who happened to be unduly anti-Christian that day.

But, even so, what's wrong with a little exaggeration and word-smithing in a eulogy? Ordinarily, perhaps, nothing. Everybody knows hyperbole when they hear it. So it's a little poetic to call for Santoro's canonization but is it really a problem?

In this case, at this moment in history, it may be more dangerous than we think.

In the first place, Turkey, like any Muslim country faithful to the Quran, has not outlawed Christianity. There is no official persecution of Christians going on there. Local prejudices, probably. Fear, certainly. But official? No.

On the contrary, the Quran requires that Christians and Jews be treated with respect and allowed to practice their faith in peace. In fact, on Feb. 9, as a sign of the peaceful relations and serious dialogue between Muslims and Christians -- Catholics, in particular, in this case -- Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer invited Pope Benedict XVI to pay an official visit to that nation in November. Pope Benedict has already accepted the invitation.

In the second place, Fr. Santoro was not the victim of a government assassination because he was Christian. He was shot by an emotionally disturbed boy who is living in a climate of tense East-West, and therefore, Muslim-Christian relations.

In the third place, the world is already dealing with a passle of Islamic fundamentalist martyrs for the faith, called jihadists, all of them almost universally condemned by moderate Muslim communities and leaders everywhere. The world doesn't need Christian ones, too.

To his everlasting credit, Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, when asked by reporters about plans for upcoming canonization procedures, said he would wait to "really see how things turn out."

From where I stand, this does not seem the time to elevate the present political situation to the level of religious warfare by incorrectly declaring our own dead, like those of Islamic fundamentalists, to be "martyrs." All we need is to trigger another century of Crusades by beginning a competition of martyrs.

It's time to watch our language. This obscure little article may be all the warning we get.

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator at the address below.

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