Thirty-five years ago today, May 15, 1977, a young Catholic cardinal, three days shy of his 57th birthday, dedicated a new church. A welcome, but fairly routine event for a Catholic cardinal or bishop. But in this instance the country was Communist Poland. The struggle to erect the church had lasted more than 20 years.
To go back: It was in 1949 when the Communist authorities started a new town on the eastern edge of Krakow. From the very beginning, there was never a plan to include a Catholic church in the town. It was, after all, to be a model Communist town. Six years later, in 1954, the super-sized Vladimir Lenin Steelworks opened. The place was called Nowa Huta (“New Steelmill”).
Five years after Nowa Huta opened for business, on Christmas Eve, 1959, Karol Wojtyla, who had been a bishop, an auxiliary bishop, of Krakow since September 1958, celebrated midnight Mass in an open, freezing field in support of the workers’ demand for a church. Wojtyla continued to celebrate Mass in the open field every year on Christmas Eve.
On one Christmas Eve, that of 1971, he referred to the pastor, a priest in his 30’s, Father Jozef Kurzeja, who was on the frontlines dealing with the Communist government:
The priest who shepherds your flock here under the bare sky, who has nothing but your good will and your solidarity [in mind] is not seeking any personal goals, any personal gain. What does he want? He wants to teach the Gospel, God’s truth, but at the same time humanity’s deepest truth. He wants to teach the principles of morality, of God’s commandments. Does that not lie within the interests of this new city, Nowa Huta? That people observe the moral law? . . . Does this not lie within the interests of the nation, the state? For that, surely the priest does not deserve punishment. Surely he deserves only praise. . .
(G. Weigel, Witness to Hope, p. 191 (1999)) The young priest was not praised, however, by the Communist government. Rather, he paid for his efforts to build a church with his life. After constant security police interrogations, he suffered a heart attack and died in 1976. (The cause for his beatification commenced in 2005. http://newsaints.faithweb.com/year/1976.htm.)
Unflinching, Cardinal Wojtyla continued to do battle for a church for the people of Nowa Huta. Nearly 10 years after he broke ground on October 14, 1967, the church was completed and could be dedicated. Cardinal Wojtyla did so on May 15, 1977 -- a year and five months before his October 22, 1978, election as pope, the election of a non-Italian man being wholly unfathomable at the time.
The church is named The Lord’s Ark. The ark referenced is that of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as protector of her people. What Cardinal Wojtyla declared on that day of dedication 35 years ago to the people of Poland and to the pilgrims from 13 countries in attendance is good for all time and places – and, in light of the current climate change brought about by President Obama and the Democrats, it is good for this time and in this country.
This is not a city of people who belong to no one, of people to whom one may do whatever one wants, who may be manipulated according to the laws or rules of production and consumption. This is a city of the children of God . . . This temple was necessary so that this could be expressed, that it could be emphasized . . .Let us hope that in this our Homeland, which has a Christian and humanitarian past, these two orders – light and the Gospel, and the respect for human rights – come together more effectively in the future.
(Weigel, p. 190; Adam Bonieck, The Making of the Pope of the Millennium: Kalendarium of the Life of Karol Wojtyla, p. 754 (2000))
Just as Nowa Huta is a “city of the children of God,” the entire United States is a nation of the children of God. And just as the Communist Polish authorities did not recognize this truth, neither do President Obama and the Democrats.
Unlike the Polish Communists, we can credit President Obama with understanding that people have the right to build places of worship. But President Obama has consistently spoken of the right to worship as if the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment was limited to the right to worship. He was a professor of constitutional law at a prestigious university (University of Chicago), so his choice of words is purposeful -- just as he knew what he was saying when, in April 2008, at a fundraiser in San Francisco he belittled people who “cling to their religion.”
If President Obama were to take a drive out of the White House up 16th Street, he would see, in a two-mile stretch, a couple dozen churches – one every eighth of a mile. These are evidence that lots of people in the D.C. area cling to their religion. Or he can visit the historic downtown district of Greenville, South Carolina, where he would see 17 churches.
But more than churches, synagogues, and mosques, I’d like him to see something more – like the Tremont area of Cleveland, centered on Lincoln Park, and its nine historic churches. One of them is St. Augustine’s Catholic Church. President George W. Bush visited it on May 24, 2001. It is a center for persons with mental and physical disabilities.
All Christian churches, all Christian peoples, keep the dual commandment. They worship God and serve people, all people. Before there were laws in the United States against discrimination on the basis of color, ethnicity, national origin, gender, pregnancy, disability, age, sexual orientation, there was the law of Christian charity which brooks no discrimination.
We celebrate this year the 1700th anniversary of the Battle of Milvian Bridge and Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. Immediately after Constantine legalized the Christian religion in the 313 A.D. Edict of Milan (next year we celebrate its 1700th anniversary), allowing Christians to come up from underground, there was a tremendous amount of activity aboveground. Not just building churches and monasteries. But adjacent to the churches and monasteries, there was a development wholly new to the world: homes for the elderly, for the sick, for travelers, for homeless, for orphans. Not just in Rome, but wherever there were Christians. In less than 100 years, every city in the Roman Empire had these homes. Witness St. Basil the Great (329-379 A.D.) who, as a priest in Caesarea, in current day Turkey, constructed what was called at that time a “city of charity” (also known as “the Basiliad”) consisting of hospices, hospitals, a leprosarium, a school and other buildings -- with a church as their focus.
It was just over a year ago, in January of 2011, that Pope Benedict recognized a similar place in our own country. The Pope acknowledged the “heroic virtues” of Father Nelson Baker (1841-1936) of Lackawanna, New York. Father Baker had built in that town near Buffalo a church, an infant home, a home for unwed mothers, a boys’ orphanage, a boys’ protectory, a hospital, a nurses’ home, and a grade and high school.
This September a shrine of Saint Frances Cabrini will reopen in the President’s hometown, Chicago. Born in 1850, Mother Cabrini emigrated in 1889 to the United States under marching orders by Pope Leo XIII. Before her death in 1917, she founded 67 institutions of charity – an average of more than two per year for 29 years.
The history of the Christian religion is a history of charity. When Christ entered the world, Love entered. Charity entered. In Pope Benedict’s 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), he wrote that the “Church can never be exempted from practicing charity as an organized activity of believers.” (Para. 29.) Mr. President, charity is not just what we Christians do. Charity is who we are. Don’t tell us that we cannot serve except under your rules, rules that would require us to act contrary to our consciences – that to assist victims of sexual trafficking we must refer them for abortion, that to provide adoption services we must assist gay couples, that to educate or to provide health care we must give our employees contraception, chemical abortion, and sterilization. To paraphrase Cardinal Wojtyla at Nowa Huta: The people of our country do not belong to you; they belong to God.
Guides to the tomb of the headless remains of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher in the Royal Chapel at St. Peter in Chains on the grounds of the Tower of London tell American visitors that Mrs. Obama and her children had visited it on their private trip in June, 2009. (Newly inaugurated President Obama was not on this trip.) A story told in the Gospel of Luke comes to mind. Jesus was invited to dinner by a Pharisee at his home. Jesus reacted with disgust at his host’s criticism that He had not performed the ritual of washing before dinner. He spoke His multiple castigations beginning with “Woe to you, Pharisees, you hypocrites!”
Another guest, educated in the Mosaic law, complained to Jesus that, when He insulted the Pharisees, He also insulted the legal scholars present. Jesus didn’t desist, He didn’t soften His attack, but instead heaped new abuse on them all: You hypocrites! You build monuments to the prophets killed by your ancestors and you imply and even assert that, if you had been alive in their day, you would not have killed the prophets. Wrong! You are just like your ancestors! You would have killed the prophets sent by God! You would have killed all of them from the beginning to this very day! (Luke 11; see also Matthew 23)
President Obama, lawyer, statesman, author, violator of conscience, is in no position to pay homage to that lawyer, statesman, author, upholder of conscience, St. Thomas More – nor to pay homage to saints of charity like Chicago’s Saint Frances Cabrini. President Obama requires today’s saints of charity to be Catholic or charitable but not both.
Spero columnist James M. Thunder practices law in Washington DC.