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Faith and Reason

During the French Revolution, in 1793, the revolutionaries held a “Festival of Reason” in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and a decree was passed that henceforth Notre Dame would be called “The Temple of Reason.” The belief behind this was that man was capable of governing himself by reason alone: that belief in God and adherence to the teachings of the Catholic Church was not only not necessary, but unreasonable.

One year later, it was apparent how unreasonable “reason” that excluded God, could become. Sixteen members of the Carmel of Compiègne, which included 11 Carmelite nuns, were found guilty of violating the “Civil Constitution of the Clergy,” which had outlawed monastic life. On July 17, 1794, all sixteen were publicly guillotined.

In contrast, the Catholic Church holds that “faith builds upon and perfects reason.” (Fides et Ratio #43) There is no conflict. As an example, we might consider the story of Fr. Damien:

In the mid-1800s, leprosy was spreading among the population of Hawaii and was considered highly contagious. In 1865, the King of Hawaii and the Hawaiian Legislature did the “reasonable thing.” Those who had severe leprosy were to be transported and quarantined on the island of Molokai. Since there were no police there, stronger residents sometimes abused the weaker, sexually and physically, and stole their food and possessions.

In 1873, Fr. Damien did what was not “reasonable.” He volunteered to go to Molokai to help the lepers, spiritually and physically, for the rest of his life. He administered the sacraments, tended skin ulcers, dug graves, and brought greater order to the settlement of about 600 people. He wrote to his brother: “Here I am in the midst of my dear lepers. They are hideous to look at but they have souls redeemed at the price of the blood of our Savior… I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.” By doing what was unreasonable in the eyes of the world, he became, in the words of St. Paul, “a fool for Christ.” (1Cor. 4:10)

In 1886, Fr. Damien was joined by another “fool,” Brother Joseph Dutton, who had converted to Catholicism three years earlier. Upon arriving on Molokai, he introduced himself to Fr. Damien: “My name is Joseph Dutton; I’ve come to help, and I’ve come to stay.” He did help, and did stay, for the rest of his life.

Meanwhile, written inquiries went out to see if any religious sisters could help. Another “fool for Christ,” Sr. Marianne Cope, wrote back: “I am hungry for the work and I wish with all my heart to be one of the chosen Ones, whose privilege it will be, to sacrifice themselves for the salvation of the souls of the poor Islanders... I am not afraid of any disease; hence it would be my greatest delight even to minister to the abandoned ‘lepers.’”

In 1888 she joined Fr. Damien on Molokai and was with him as he lay dying of leprosy in 1889. She too remained until she died in 1918. Other sisters of her order came, stayed and helped: comforting and tending to the lepers, and opening a school for girls. In 1895 four Brothers of the Sacred Heart arrived to help care for and educate the boys in the leper colony.

These three saints (though Brother Joseph Dutton hasn’t yet been declared a saint) show us how the right understanding of our ultimate end helps guide our actions.

Each of us is called to become “a fool for Christ.” Jesus has told us: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Mat 16:24-25)

We have a paradox: “Fools for Christ,” that is, those who deny themselves, and practice the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy, are the most reasonable people in the world!

St. Michael Broadcasting is trying to encourage everyone fortunate enough to receive the station to “take up his cross, and follow.” Please help with this apostolate by praying for its success, offering to volunteer, by asking if you may place program guides in your parish’s literature rack, by telling others, or, if possible, through a financial contribution.

Saints Damien and Marianne Cope, pray for us!

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