In 1879, the first Catholic missionaries arrived in the heart of Africa, in what is now the nation of Uganda. They catechized and preached and in a few years had made a number of converts, especially among the young. The most prominent of these were a group of men and boys who served as pages to the court of King Mwanga II. This king had initially been supportive of the missionaries, but his attitude quickly changed when he discovered how seriously his Christian pages took the moral demands of their new faith. Accustomed to getting whatever he wanted, Mwanga solicited sexual favors from several of his courtiers. When they refused, he presented them with a terrible choice: either renounce their Christian faith or die. Though they were new converts and though they were very young, the pages, to a man, refused to deny their Christianity. Joseph Mukasa Balikudembe was killed outright by the king himself, and the rest were led off on a terrible death march to the place of execution, many miles outside the capital city. On the way, the condemned passed the home of the priest who had baptized and catechized many of them. One can only imagine the profoundly conflicting feelings of pride and anguish that the priest must have experienced as he watched this procession. Witnesses said that the young men showed enormous resolution on the march and that the youngest, a boy named Kizito, actually chattered and laughed with this friends as he walked. When they arrived at the place of execution, a spot called Namugongo, they were put to death, some by spear but most by fire. The leader of the group, Charles Lwanga, all of twenty-five years old, asked permission to prepare the pyre himself. After arranging the wood, he lay down and endured a slow torture in silence, crying out “Oh God!” only at the very end.
I grant, of course, that the BP oil-leak in the Gulf of Mexico has been an environmental disaster, perhaps the worst since the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. But I also think it might carry a certain spiritual value. How would I explain this gnomic remark? Well, the gusher a mile below the surface of the ocean has confounded everyone. BP executives look and sound befuddled; the crews using the most advanced technological tools to stem the tide of oil are ineffectual; our smartest scientists can’t seem to come up with any solutions; and the President who was hailed, just a few months ago, as The One, is stymied by his daughter’s plaintive question, “Daddy, have you plugged the hole yet?” I don’t point all this out in order to mock the scientists, businessmen and politicians who are, presumably, striving to solve the problem; I do so in order to draw attention to our profound vulnerability and our inescapable finitude.
This has been a particularly terrible year for gun violence in Chicago. We wring our hands over the killings in the Holy Land, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but things are practically as bad in our own streets. Attention has been drawn to this problem recently because of the Supreme Court’s striking down of Chicago’s gun ban and the City Council’s rapid re-institution of another version of the same law.
I was recently scheduled to address the priests of the Archdiocese of Boston, but bad weather rolled into O’Hare, and my flight was cancelled. However, I’d like to share with you some of the insights I had intended to offer to the Boston priests. As you know, Boston was the epicenter of the clergy sex abuse scandal that came to light in 2002 and that continues to shake the church around the country and around the world. I struggled rather mightily to prepare this talk, for I didn’t want to dwell on the difficulties, and I wanted, above all, to give these priests a sense of hope, but I knew I had to make some reference to the scandal. I decided to take my own advice (cf. an article that I wrote some weeks ago) and look at the issue through biblical eyes.
I have been all across the world these past two years, filming for my documentary on Catholicism. With my team, I’ve travelled to Jerusalem, Rome, Madrid, Mexico City, Warsaw, Krakow, Auschwitz, Koln, New York, Philadelphia, Istanbul, Corinth, and Athens. But none of these places had a visceral impact to match that of the city I’ve just visited: Calcutta, India. We had gone there to film in locales associated with the work of Mother Teresa and her sisters, and therefore, we didn’t spend much time in the relatively presentable parts of the city. We went to the slums where, in Mother’s famous phrase, “the poorest of the poor” lived. Here are just some of the images that I trust will stay branded in my mind for the rest of my life: a child of about ten gathering horse manure with his bare hands in order to sell it; people bathing in the river filled with raw sewage; a mentally disturbed woman just outside of the Mother House of the Missionaries of Charity emitting a blood-curdling and other-worldly scream; garbage absolutely everywhere, as though the entire city were a trash heap; people whose only dwelling was the street or sidewalk; beggar children surrounding me and gesturing desperately to their mouths; a man at one of Mother’s hospitals with a goiter on his neck the size of a pumpkin; a Missionary of Charity sister, having just tended to a man bleeding from one of his ears, saying to me, “maggots again.”