Tue. Oct 22nd, 2019

The death penalty and Blessed Bartolo Longo

“Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future,” is a line from A Woman of No Importance, a now obscure play by Oscar Wilde, which quote I first encountered watching the movie, There Be Dragons (2011), a historical drama (with romance and plenty of action) written and directed by Roland Joffe. The movie is set during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39); and it is a powerful, visceral disquisition on the themes of betrayal and redemption. My original interest was in its re-telling of the (real) life of St. Josemaría Escrivá alongside (and intertwined with) that of the main (fictional) character. The title is a variant of the phrase, “here be dragons”, hic sunt dracones, found in some ancient maps (medieval and renaissance), indicating unknown—uncharted and dangerous—waters or territory (mare incognitum or terra incognita). But, yes, the film is worth watching for its own artistic and entertainment value—better even, I think, than Joffe’s earlier (1986) film of the same genre, The Mission (starring Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, et al.).

The Oscar Wilde quote comes to mind in the wake of President Duterte’s fourth State of the Nation Address (SONA) last July 22 (the fourth Monday of July, by Constitutional mandate), in which, among others, he asked Congress to pass a law re-imposing the death penalty “for heinous crimes related to illegal drugs and plunder”. I trust that our legislators will also revisit the Pastoral Statement of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) issued by its then President, Archbishop Socrates Villegas (of Lingayen-Dagupan), on March 19, 2017. Here’s the link: http://cbcponline.net/cbcp-pastoral-statement-on-death-penalty/. The CBCP statement is a pronouncement on the immorality of the death penalty in the context of present social conditions; which should be binding, at least, on the consciences of Catholics (including the majority of our congressmen and senators).

Beyond the usual arguments, however, I am struck by how the eternal finality of the death penalty is so antithetical to the eminently Christian value of Mercy.

“The name of God is Mercy,” Pope Francis teaches in his eponymous book-length interview (2016) with the journalist Andrea Tornielli. “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8, 16) properly translates into Mercy vis-a-vis sinful humanity. Indeed we are all sinners, albeit struggling to become saints, which is possible to attain because (and only because) of Divine Mercy and grace. But the death penalty precisely deprives the executed sinner of his future—his spatium verae poenitentiae, room for repentance (Wis 12:10)—which God alone has the right to cut short.

With these considerations, one cannot help but think that, at times, underlying a call for the death penalty could be some degree of hypocrisy, arrogance, and self-righteousness; as if the proponent were not subject to the same disordered tendencies of our wounded human nature. Most of the time, of course, it would be sheer thoughtlessness or lack of Christian formation.

Sacred scripture is clear on our need for mercy; and on the flipside, our need to be merciful: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt 5:7). In the case of the woman caught in adultery, who was about to be stoned to death, our Lord said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (Jn 8:7). And Shakespeare never sounded more Christian to me than in Portia’s soliloquy (The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1): “The quality of mercy is not strained./ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/… It is an attribute to God Himself;/ And earthly power doth then show likest God’s/ When mercy seasons justice…/ Though justice be thy plea, consider this:/ That in the course of justice none of us/ Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy”.

But to go back to Oscar Wilde’s line, one saint who had a really colorful past is Blessed Bartolo Longo, the “Apostle of the Rosary”. I first came across his name in the Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae (The Rosary of the Virgin Mary) issued by Pope John Paul II on October 16, 2002 (the 25th anniversary of his election as Pope). It ends with a quote from Bartolo Longo’s work, Supplication to the Queen of the Holy Rosary: “O Blessed Rosary of Mary, sweet chain which unites us to God, bond of love which unites us to the angels…”

Bartolo Longo was born on February 10, 1841, in Brindisi (Italy). As a young lawyer, he became a Satanic priest, and later, a Satanic bishop. One can imagine the implications on his morals and lifestyle. (A saintly friend who passed away a few years ago used to say of his own life before conversion, “You name it, I’ve done it.”) Naturally, Bartolo could not be happy; he became depressed and was on the brink of a nervous breakdown when, through the prayers of his family, a friend succeeded in leading him back to God, to the Church, and the Sacraments. He devoted the rest of his life to promoting the practice of praying the Rosary; died on October 5, 1926, and was beatified on October 26, 1980. His incorrupt body lies in the Basilica of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary in Pompeii, which he had helped build in his lifetime.

I end by asking Blessed Bartolo Longo, together with the Blessed Virgin Mary, mater Salvatoris, refugium peccatorum, mother of our Savior and refuge of sinners, to intercede for all of us, especially those thought to be beyond redemption. (28.VII.2019)

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