Telling the Stories that Matter: March 23 – Peter O’Higgins, Martyr, Lifesaver, Thought Criminal


William Pilsworth was the vicar of the Church of Ireland in Donadea and had given room and board to Roman Catholic friars even though they disagreed on some theological matters. In 1641, there was a rebellion on Ireland and many fled the countryside to find refuge in Dublin. William was one of the last to do so and was detained by the rebel army outside of Dublin. When they searched his things they found a letter from a brother-in-law who asked William to kill a rebel and bring the head with him so that their family might purchase security from the powerful by spilling the blood of the hated. Though William had done no such thing and had no plans to do so, he was given a political choice: attend a Roman Catholic mass as an ally or die as an enemy.He refused to be manipulated and so he was marched to the gallows. Before the trapdoor released and William could plunge to his death, a Roman Catholic priest by the name of Peter O’Higgins intervened. Peter had never met William and knew nothing of him but gave a detailed and impassioned speech insisting that this execution would be an unholy and reprehensible act. Having been chastised by Peter O’Higgins, William’s captors released him.

The protestant government soon cracked down on the rebellion and moved into the area with speed and vicious efficiency. Peter remained in his parish even though he had been advised to flee the expected vengeance against Roman Catholics in the area. He was arrested and turned over to the military powers. The commander of the force, a man by the name of Ormonde, handed him on down the line to a lesser officer but expected that the Peter–a Dominican priest–would find mercy from those in whose hands he found himself.Almost twenty protestant clergymen wrote letters begging mercy and leniency for Peter but these appear to be ignored. He was beaten, abused, tortured, and finally marched to the gallows to die. He was accused of trying to convinced protestants to give up their protest but could only be found guilty of simply being Roman Catholic.When he stood on the gallows, he was presented with two pieces of paper: one was a warrant for his execution and the other was a pardon to be given to him on the condition that he recanted his faith.He had requested that the pardon be printed up for him to consider upon the gallows and his accusers had complied.

The assembled crowd looked on as Peter considered both documents. They couldn’t decide what they wanted more: to see the priest die or to see the priest sacrifice his faith for his life. They had long ago left behind devotion to the one who was the Bread of Life. He picked up the pardon and some in the crowd were excited as they imagined he would now recant his position and join with the protestants. Instead, he spoke loudly and for all to hear: “For some time I was in doubt as t the charge on which they would ground my condemnation; but, thanks to heaven, it is no longer so; and I am about to die for my attachment to the catholic faith. See you here the condition on which I might save my life? Apostasy is all they require; but, before high heaven, I spurn their offers, and with my last breath will glorify God for the honor he has done me, in allowing me thus to suffer for his name.” With these words, he threw the pardon to the dirt below the gallows. The trapdoor was released and he was hung for refusing to give up on his faith–the faith that this accusers claimed but had long ago forgotten. This was not a protestant or Roman Catholic faith alone; it was a faith that transcended political labels and rested solely in devotion to Jesus. As he slowly died at the end of the rope–and even as they were preparing to kill Peter–William Pilsworth stood at his feet repeatedly yelling: “This man is innocent! He saved my life!” Peter O’Higgins died on the 23rd day of March in the year 1642.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: March 13 – Rutilio Grande, Martyr, Priest, Friend of the Poor


Rutilio Grande was born and raised in El Salvador. It was in El Salvador that he was brought into the Faith that would preserve and empower him for years to come and it is in El Salvador that he would lay down his life as a witness to the liberating and saving power of his Lord Jesus Christ. His family was very poor and so he was well acquainted with the life of poverty and the uncertainty that follows in its wake day after day. At the age of twelve he expressed a desire to become a priest. This was perhaps partly because it represented a way out of “accidental” poverty by entering into a vow of poverty–if he was going to be poor at least he could choose it and find some comfort in it as a calling. He joined the Jesuits five years later and studied to become a priest. The life of a priest represented comfort to Rutilio and so he adhered to the many rules and regulations with zeal since they gave his life structure. Yet, as he further invested himself in administration and education he began to drift slowly away from a life of grace and mercy and into a life of regulation and comforting security. He was ordained into the priesthood but he feared that it was beyond him and that he was painfully inadequate in this calling.

In 1965 he returned to El Salvador from abroad (mostly Spain) to serve as the Director of Social Action at the Jesuit seminary in El Salvador. He had an incredible impact on the formation of new ministers in his years there. Though it was the norm for priests to be socialites and people of status in El Salvador, Rutilio was beginning to feel like there was a different calling at work in his life and in the lives of those close to him. He beganinsisting that seminarians spend more time with the poor and that priests become deeply and emotionally invested in the lives of the poor in their parishes. He coordinated ministers and ministries so that the poverty of many became the concern of those who expressed a desire to be the hands and feet of their homeless Lord. This work continued even as Rutilio took a position as priest of a parish. He began to attract attention from the government because of his compassion on the poor and disenfranchised in El Salvador. The powers that ruled El Salvador feared that Rutilio would excite people to rebellion in his preaching and in his proclamations of liberty for the poor and outcast. Men like Rutilio and Oscar Romero were increasingly unwelcome in El Salvador. This point was driven home when a priest was kidnapped, abused, and then exiled from the country.Soon after, Rutilio preached a sermon that would cost him his life. In it he said:

I’m quite aware that very soon the Bible and the gospel won’t be allowed to cross our borders. We’ll only get the bindings, because all the pages are subversive. And I think that if Jesus himself across the border to Chalatenango, they wouldn’t let him in. They would accuse the man…of being a rabble-rouser, a foreign Jew, one who confused the people with exotic and foreign ideas, ideas against democracy—that is, against the wealthy minority, the clan of Cains! Brothers and sisters, without any doubt, they would crucify him again. And God forbid that I be one of the crucifiers!

Less than a month later, Rutilio Grande–the man who had said, “It is a dangerous thing to be a Christian in this world“–was killed by government agents with machine guns. He was gunned down and the government’s role in his death was covered up. It was only through the tireless work of his friends (including Romero) that the truth was finally uncovered. Rutilio Grande was a friend of the poor and a proclaimer of liberty to the disenfranchised. It cost him his life in 1977.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: March 8 – John of God, Monastic, Friend of the Poor, Caretaker


John’s family still heard the echos of great affluence in their heritage and way of life but they were by no means wealthy or influential in the world they knew. In fact, their family had been reduced to poverty. Further, John’s mother died when he was only a very young child. John and his father were left alone in a world that had become increasingly unwelcoming to the two of them. John’s father–now a widower–took up a life of spiritual devotion and became a monk. He was taken care of by a priest for some time before being hired by a farmer to tend his flocks. As far as shepherding went, John was very talented and gained the esteem of his employer. As John grew older and his faith became more his own and more apparent in the eyes of his employer he connected the task of shepherding with the task of ministry. John’s employer wanted John to marry his daughter–as a way of rewarding John but, also, as a way of keeping a man of his talent and faith around–but John had already become convinced that his calling was to enter a spiritual order like his father had. He left his job as a shepherd and sought out another kind of flock to care for.

After moving to Spain and serving as a soldier in the military of the Holy Roman Empire, he became involved in a group of Christians who were printing religious books on their new printing press and distributing them to anyone who was able and willing to read them. This was a task that he enjoyed and felt was a part of his calling but it wasn’t until one day in January–the day of the feast of Saint Sebastian–that he experienced the next step in his conversion. He heard the preaching of John of Avila and was struck by the truth of it in ways that he could not easily dismiss or deny. He felt convicted by John’s insistence that the Church of God must care for the poor and the disenfranchised. Following the service he went into the streets to consider what he had heard when he was gripped by a holy madness. Though he tried to remain rational and sensible, he was soon seized by the people and committed to a local asylum having been judged mad. He struggled with this holy madness for some time until John of Avila visited him. When he laid eyes on John of Avila the madness was lifted and he was left with the memory of how he had been treated while on the streets, while poor, and while he had been considered the refuse of society. With John of Avila’s encouragement, he devoted himself to taking care of the poor and the sick–those whom the world would prefer to forget about.

At first, John had more than enough work to do simply spending time with and loving the poor. Yet, as he continued to receive support and feel the confirmation of his calling deep within him he began providing medical help to those who could not afford any assistance from the world’s doctors for hire. As he poured himself out for the people of Spain (particularly in Granada), he began to be joined by other men who were interested in giving their lives away for the poor and the sick. These men became John’s disciples and learned to love others first as this was everyone’s most fundamental need. The group eventually became known as the Order of Hospitallers, now better known as the Brothers Hospitallers of St. John of God. John served God by serving others until the day he died–his fifty-fifth birthday. Those whom he directed continued to serve in John’s stead in a ministry that should not ever be forsaken by the People of God.

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Russell and a Fine-toothed Comb

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“Uh, I have something I need to tell you guys,” Russell said quietly while standing near the back door of our home. Russell had been staying with us for a few months at that point and things were going pretty well. He was sober and he had accomplished his initial goals from when he moved in with us, like getting well and stable. He had even made some progress on several of his bigger goals, like getting all of his identity documentation together and finding better ways to participate in the life of our community. But in that hesitating moment, he stood timidly at the back door in a way that we’ve learned to hate seeing. Something unexpected had happened and now Russell didn’t know if he was still welcome with us.

He must have practiced his speech a dozen times after being discharged from the emergency room. As we quietly contemplated what had been broken between us, Russell explained that the “people at the hospital” had told him he had head lice. Russell explained that his head had really started to itch a few days previous and he had finally gone to the emergency room because he didn’t know where else to go. He apologized to us, fearing that we now had a head lice problem in the house we shared, and volunteered to move out that night. We said “no,” both to his offer and his anxious fear, not just because it was January and dreadfully cold, but also because Russell was a part of our household and was welcome, even if lice wasn’t.

So, we did what you do when somebody you love comes home with head lice. The whole household—Russell and both families—began to clean furiously while one of us went to the pharmacy to find some specific cleaning products. “I’m sorry for all this,” Russell repeated like a prayer, still only half believing that he could be welcome with us, still finding it frighteningly easy to believe that “somebody like him” wasn’t worth it.

We reconvened around a large pile of bedding, towels, clothing, and a favorite hat, to figure out what to do next and decided to start with first treating Russell’s scalp, hair, and beard with one of the shampoos and the fine-toothed comb. But here’s the strange thing about Russell’s head lice: they weren’t there. Russell had a very bad case of dandruff and needed a good deep clean with a dandruff shampoo, but there wasn’t a single nit or louse anywhere in Russell’s hair or beard. There wasn’t a single nit or louse anywhere in the house, in fact.

Bewildered, we asked Russell why the folks in the emergency room had told him he had head lice, even as we checked again. It seems that when Russell arrived in the emergency room, complaining of itching scalp, they recognized him. They didn’t know his name, but they were already confident of what his problem was. They didn’t know he was no longer without shelter and things were slowly starting to break in his favor, but they were certain about what was “wrong” with him. They assuredly knew that, as the Center for Disease Control puts it, “getting head lice is not related to cleanliness of the person or his or her environment,” but they were also convinced that Russell was untouchable. So, somebody gave a quick glance to Russell’s scalp without ever laying a hand on him, wrote him a prescription, and told him to hurry to the pharmacy before it closed for the night.

It’s a story that all of our brothers and sisters experiencing homelessness know too well. Everybody knows your problem and hardly anybody knows your name. It’s the kind of thing that makes you stand timidly at a back door, rehearsing a speech and wondering if you’re still welcome. It’s the kind of thing that starts to make you feel like less of a person and more of a problem. It’s the kind of thing that teaches you to apologize when bad things happen to you.

So, we did what you do when somebody you love comes home with dandruff diagnosed as invisible head lice. We gave thanks to God. We lamented a world that develops solutions for people, as if they were problems, and hearts that know how to “fix somebody” without ever really meeting them. We poked a little fun at each other for our frantic cleaning, to salve over the hurt we felt for believing the lie for a little while, for not first checking Russell’s scalp for ourselves. We all shared a late dinner amidst our couch cushions drying from their unnecessary chemical treatment. We told some stories, made some jokes, and built up the relationship imperiled by a hasty misdiagnosis. We said, “one day we’ll laugh about this.” We do, you know, but also we grieve what almost was and still too often is.

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