A Tale of Two Religious

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On Wednesday, August 26, Sister Diedre Byrne, POSC, a nun who served as a surgeon, a retired army officer, and a missionary, gave a bold speech at the Republican National Convention regarding the sanctity of all human life. She affirmed and praised President Donald Trump for being one of the most pro-life presidents in American history in trying to stop the murder of unborn children through abortion. She also assured him of not only the support of America’s pro-life community but also that of countless religious throughout the nation who would be supporting him spiritually with “our weapon of choice, the rosary.”

This comment would later garner the criticism of Father Daniel Horan, OFM, professor of theology at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. On Twitter, he stated the following: “Weapons, by definition, are instruments of violence. Prayer is NOT a weapon, sacramentals for prayer like rosaries are not weapons. Christ preached and lived a message of nonviolence, and prayer is always about love—God’s love. Weaponizing faith is disgusting and idolatrous.”

The criticism given by Father Horan of Sister Byrne’s comments on the rosary seems not only strange but completely discordant with the constant teaching of the Church as taught by Our Lord in the Gospels, Saint Paul, the Psalms, as well as the saints. Why does Father Horan distort the faith by promoting opposition to the normal spiritual combat of the ordinary life of faith that the faithful are called to wage through the grace of God?

Such imagery of spiritual combat as central to the life of faith can be seen clearly in the teaching of Sacred Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments. Psalm 144:1-2 states, “Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for battle, my fingers for war; My safeguard and my fortress, my stronghold, my deliverer. My shield, in whom I take refuge, who subdues people under me.” Moreover, Our Lord Himself says “I have not come to bring peace, but the sword” (Matthew 10:34).

Saint Paul uses the following imagery of spiritual combat to describe the enemies of faith and the war all the faithful are called to wage against them: “Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground. So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:11–17).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church also reminds us that prayer is a battle “against ourselves and against the wiles of the tempter who does all he can to turn man away from prayer, away from union with God.” Moreover, we are reminded that “the ‘spiritual battle’ of the Christian’s new life is inseparable from the battle of prayer” (2725). In Ingravescentibus Malis, Pope Pius XI calls the rosary “a powerful weapon to put demons to flight.” One night as he lay sick looking for his rosary beads to pray with, Padre Pio told Father Onorato of San Giovanni Rotundo, “Young man, get me my weapon; give me my weapon.”

Such calls as Sister Byrne’s to embrace the rosary as a weapon do not go against the Faith nor reek of idolatry. To be a disciple of Christ involves waging war against the self-idolatry of sin both within the world and within one’s heart through the gospel of peace and by grace. This fight brings the realization that wars are violent and will have dangers, particularly the war against the flesh and the spirit that we all wage within our own hearts through grace and faith. All the saints understood that the spiritual combat that is central to the life of faith was rooted in the love of the One who was pierced for our offenses, by whose stripes we are healed. (Cf. Isaiah 53:5) This is the love of Jesus Christ who conquered sin, death, and Satan through love on the cross to win for His Church and for all people freedom, peace, and salvation. There is a danger of watering down the Faith to relativistic niceties of self-serving ideologies that undermine the gospel of Jesus Christ through the tyranny of “woke” sentimentality. Such niceties often seek to make the Church and the gospel into an earthly tower of babel that promotes self-serving victimization and entitlement instead of the love and truth that ensure the true freedom and salvation of all the children of God.

Father Horan’s disputation of calling the rosary a weapon clearly falls short of understanding the spiritual life and prayer as a spiritual combat. Therefore, one can only wonder what the real issue is here. Perhaps Father Horan and all of us would be well served to prayerfully reflect upon the following words of the spiritual classic The Spiritual Combat by Dom Lorenzo Scupoli. He reminds those of us who are on the earthly journey of faith that “many who aspire to the spiritual life, being rather lovers of themselves than of that which is needful (although indeed they know it not), select for the most part those practices which accord with their own taste, and neglect others which touch to the quick their natural inclinations and sensual appetites, to overcome which all reason demands that they should put forth their full strength. Therefore, beloved, I advise and entreat you to cherish a love for that which is painful and difficult, for such things will bring you victory over self—on this all depends.”

This call stated by Dom Lorenzo Scupoli was echoed by Sister Byrne in her impassioned plea to pray the rosary both for our president and for the establishment of an authentic culture of life in our country. May we each do our part to heed her clarion call to engage in the spiritual warfare of the rosary and the life of faith to pray and work for the defense of the dignity of all human life, especially the unborn child. May the grace of putting on this armor of faith to do battle help us realize more clearly that it is only Our Lord Himself through the hands of His mother and His Church who can give us a true, eternal peace. This is a promise that only He and no ideology, no presidential candidate, and no worldly power can give us.

[Photo credit: PBS NewsHour/Youtube and Daniel P. Horan, OFM/Facebook]

Fr. Matthew MacDonald

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Fr. Matthew MacDonald is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. He is currently assigned as parochial vicar at Saint Mary’s Church in Washingtonville, New York.

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