Thursday, September 23, 2010

Saints and Heroes

Another beatification? Another saint? No sooner has one luminary of the Church been beatified--John Henry Newman--than another comes around. Having just returned from Our Saviour parish after the dedication of a new shrine (the first in the U.S.!) to the recently beatified Cardinal Newman, I chanced to read about the impending beatification of an Italian girl named Chiara Badano who liked to skate, dance and play tennis. What would there be about a seemingly normal teen that could possibly warrant her beatification?

At 17, Chiara was diagnosed with bone cancer and underwent chemotherapy, hospitalizations, unsuccessful surgery resulting in an inability to walk and, finally, months of pain before her untimely demise. On the one hand, there's the intellectual giant John Henry Newman and on the other a teen suffering from cancer, and both may be destined for sainthood. Hmm. There are, apparently, many ways to be "images of Christ." Chiara, with a devotion to and love of Christ, consciously decided, according to an incident related by her mother, to take up her cross and fully embrace her suffering as she prepared to "meet Jesus." Chiara died "happy" just a few weeks shy of her nineteenth birthday with the instruction to her mother that she repeat three times that Chiara is now "seeing Jesus." There is more about Chiara's beatification here.

At the same time, there was awarded the other day a Medal of Honor to Chief Master Sergeant Richard L. Etchberger for his heroism in Laos in March of 1968. With his crew lying dead and wounded around him, he "single-handedly held off the enemy with an M-16, while simultaneously directing air strikes into the area and calling for air rescue." As if that wasn't enough, he then proceeded, in the line of enemy fire, to lift not one, but three of his wounded crew into helicopter slings. Need it be said that as Etchberger was himself lifted into the helicopter, he was fatally wounded.

At first glance, Chiara and Chief Etchberger seem to have about as much in common as do Chiara and Blessed John Henry Newman. But reading the story of the Italian teen on one day called to mind reading the story of the soldier from just days before. Here are unusually courageous acts from otherwise usual people as they are confronted with danger, death and pain. They show a virtuous spirit that, once triggered, indomitably persists in being virtuous not only once or for a moment, but repeatedly and regardless of the last moment. Here are two who gave a somewhat unfathomable and conscious "yes" to personal sacrifice, the possibility of which, as a soldier, Etchberger was certainly quite aware and something Chiara certainly understood as her disease advanced.

Some time ago, I heard a talk by a rabbi who spoke, among other things, about the death of his parents in a concentration camp. The details of his story are a bit fuzzy now, but while his parents were carted off to a hideous end, his own boyhood was spared due to the heroic acts of some courageous individuals who looked after him. The rabbi gazed out at those of us in the audience and anticipated, as he probably had many times before, the questions that were on our minds, namely, Are you bitter, angry, vengeful? Are you guilt-ridden over your own survival? and Why are you so calm and reasonable?

To the unasked questions, the rabbi answered very matter of factly that he had learned quite early in life that human beings are--as he waved one hand to one side--capable of great evil and--as he gestured with his other hand to his other side--capable of great good. It's not pleasant to dwell on the suffering of a dying girl, the thoughts of a soldier under enemy fire, or the fears of those hiding a young Jewish boy orphaned by the Nazis. But it is pleasant after a fashion to dwell on their actions in the face of fear and danger as a reminder of the capability for great good that was placed within all of us.

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