“God draws straight with crooked lines” is supposedly a Portuguese proverb. Wherever it comes from, it’s a true statement.
Sometimes God means for you to make a discovery and yet you imagine you’ve been put someplace by mistake. It isn’t until later that you see what God already saw when he led you there in the first place.
While scanning the news this morning, I read that the great film composer Maurice Jarre had died. He will be remembered for the lush Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia scores that added so much grandeur to those great classics. Somehow, I thought that he had composed the score for The Mission, one of our favorite spiritual films. The film tells a fictionalized version of real events during the colonial period in Central America when the Portuguese and the Spanish agreed to a treaty that expelled the Jesuits so that each nation could claim the native labor for their own.
Robert Bolt, one of the most intelligent screenwriters ever to work in Hollywood, wrote the screenplay. The film stars Jeremy Irons, Robert De Niro, Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn and, in a very small role, poet and peace activist Father Daniel Berrigan, SJ.
I emailed my husband Jarre’s obit and added that I thought he had also composed the music for The Mission. Something ineffable–the hand of God–led me to look up the credits for the film. I discovered that another talented composer, Ennio Morricone, had created the haunting mix of Spanish and Central American Indian music for The Mission.
Suffice it to say that one thing led to another and I eventually found St. Roque Gonzalez de Santa Cruz, the Jesuit priest who inspired the saintly, nonviolent Father Gabriel played by Irons in The Mission. Father Gabriel “conquers” warlike Indians in colonial Central America with his Christian love and the oboe on which he plays a haunting theme that soothes the savage breast. (The scene when Father Gabriel dies, Monstrance in hand, in The Mission never fails to move me. It reminds me of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero’s death and St. Claire’s use of the Monstrace to repel the enemy.)
In mistaking one great composer for another, I found a great saint today. The inspiration for Father Gabriel was canonized by Pope John Paul in 1988 when he became the first Paraguayan saint.
St. Roque Gonzalez de Santa Cruz was of noble blood, but he gave his life to making life better for the natives who were being exploited by colonialists in the early 17th century. He built churches, missions, homes and schools for the natives. In living with the indigenous people, he combined their native traditions with Catholic celebrations. He made many converts by living the Gospel instead of forcibly shoving the Gospel down the throats of conquered people, as the colonial lords did.
Unlike the scene in the film when the mission is taken away, St. Roque pleaded the cause to the authorities and actually convinced the Spanish government to allow his mission to stand. While celebrating the Mass, he was killed by an arrow to the heart. A local medicine man who was losing his power base as his people converted to Christianity killed St. Roque and two other Jesuit Martyrs of Paraguay, St. Juan de Castillo and St. Alonso Rodriguez.
When I was very young, six or so, I read La Edad de Oro, a collection of articles written for children by the Cuban poet and patriot Jose Marti. He had published a few issues of a magazine to educate children in the 1890s and the materials had been collected in a book whose title can be translated as “the golden age,” referring to childhood.
In reading La Edad de Oro, I learned how the Spanish had brutally converted the Americas by violence and intimidation and how some religious like Fray Bartolome de las Casas had used love to bring the Gospel. Every Cuban child knows the story of Hatuey, the native chief who was burned at the stake for refusing to convert to Catholicism. (Never mind that Hatuey is now better known as a brand of Cuban beer with a logo of his image in profile.)
I recall being ashamed of the tactics used to bring the God who is Love to natives through genocide. Hatuey had asked the friar at his burning if there were people like him in Heaven. When the friar said there were, Hatuey replied that he didn’t want to to anywhere where those allowed to commit atrocities would be.
The criminal history of the conquest of the Americas created a fervent and growing branch of Catholicism in the world, even if it was engendered in blood. It also created holy men like Fray de las Casas and saints like Roque Gonzalez de Santa Cruz and the other martyrs of Paraguay. The simple faith of the people of Latin America has enriched and blessed our Church in great measure. Let us pray for the descendants of those who were martyred during the colonial conquest who are now such a vital part of Christ’s flock.
And let us thank God for the crooked lines he uses to write straight so that we can discover moments of grace in an otherwise ordinary day, as I did today.
30 Mar 2009 writeforgod