If you had spent the first forty-one years of your life as a slave, before finally obtaining your freedom, would that experience have ennobled you—or embittered you? For most people, I think, four decades of slavery would leave them with a lasting sense of anger and suspicion—but that was not true of the man who may well become America’s first black saint. Pierre Toussaint was born into slavery on the French colony of Haiti in 1766. When he was eleven, a slave uprising prompted his master to flee to New York City, taking with him his wife, his sister, and five slaves—including Pierre. When the master died, Pierre voluntarily stayed with the family and supported them for twenty years by working as a hairdresser. When the master’s wife was on her deathbed in 1807, she granted Pierre his freedom. He soon afterwards married, and he and his wife Juliette—who had been a slave herself—devoted themselves to caring for orphaned black children; at the same time, Pierre dedicated his life to ransoming or purchasing the freedom of other slaves, and he spent much of his time visiting and caring for victims of yellow fever or cholera epidemics. Pierre became known as one of the leading philanthropists of New York City; he donated to the construction of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and every day for almost seventy years, attended Mass at the oldest Catholic church in the city, St. Peter’s in downtown Manhattan. When he died in 1853, he was mourned by thousands of people—black and white, Catholic and Protestant. In 1996 Pope John Paul II gave him the title “Venerable”—the first step toward canonization—and his remains were exhumed and reburied in the crypt beneath the main altar at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, making him the first layperson to receive this honor (William J. Bausch, Once Upon A Gospel, p. 326).
As a black man in 19th century America, Pierre Toussaint had many first-hand encounters with hatred and evil; he became holy by responding to everyone with Christian charity—and in this he is an example for us. We are called to cast out evil with love; this is the secret to changing our hearts, and changing the world.
The Gospel of Mark (1:21-28) relates how, when Jesus was teaching in a synagogue early in His public ministry, He was interrupted by a demonically-possessed man. The Lord quickly and easily expelled the demon; the reason He was able to do so was because He Himself embodied perfect Love. Love was the source of His power over evil; love was the source of His authority in teaching in a way that astonished the people. Evil often seems to gain the upper hand in this world, but in the end, love will triumph. The Book of Deuteronomy (18:15-20) tells us that God in His love promised to send prophets to His people, helping them know and live by the truth, and St. Paul (1 Cor 7:32-35) suggests that if we truly have love for God in our hearts, we will want to live in a way that serves Him and pleases Him. Evil is barren and self-destructive, whereas love is liberating and life-giving—and if we open our hearts to God’s love, He will bless us and use us in His ongoing plan of salvation.
About a week ago I read a sad story in the newspaper about an atheist, a fierce and hostile opponent of religion, who moved into a small town in western Michigan and began shaking things up by organizing protests, filing lawsuits challenging the presence of Christian symbols in public places, and forcing school districts to cancel voluntary lunch-time programs sponsored by an area church. The sad part of the article was where the man stated that in response to his efforts, he has been cursed at by Christians, been compared to a terrorist or even the devil from pulpits and on social media, and has received hate mail and death threats from religious believers (Detroit News, January 24, 2015). If his claims are true, some Christians in Michigan’s so-called Bible Belt are acting in a very non-Christian way; their clumsy efforts to defend the faith are merely raising the level of hatred and intolerance. It would be far more effective if they were to surround this misguided man with love and acceptance, drowning the fires of his anger and bigotry with an avalanche of kindness and compassion.
This was the approach of a pro-life organization whose peaceful marches and activities were always shadowed by a hostile pro-abortion demonstrator. He constantly shouted obscenities and curses at them, but they simply smiled at him and prayed for him; they greeted him by name, and offered him hot chocolate on cold and rainy days. When the man’s wife died, it wasn’t other pro-abortionists who comforted and helped him; no, it was the members of the pro-life organization who came to the funeral home and offered to help in any way they could. This was too much for him; he broke down in tears as his hatred melted away, realizing that he had been wrong. Love brought about a change of heart, and the man eventually joined the pro-life group he had once so fiercely opposed.
When we respond to evil persons or situations with hatred, evil becomes stronger; when we respond with love, God’s Name is glorified, His grace flows out from us, and the final triumph of love draws that much closer. Living this way isn’t easy; it requires a certain amount of spiritual heroism—but such a holy and radical outlook and lifestyle is possible through divine grace. When someone sins against us, we’re entitled to defend ourselves, but not to respond in hatred. Instead, we should pray, “Jesus, I ask you to bless this person, and I offer up this injustice for Your glory.” We might say to the person, “I hope God helps you find the peace you’ve been looking for,” or simply, “I forgive you in Christ’s Name.” If enough Christians did this, the beauty of our faith might attract and help bring about many new members of the Church, while beginning to transform our society in a wonderful way.
Venerable Pierre Toussaint understood that when we hate those who hate us, evil takes root in our hearts; the more we hold onto bitterness, the more enslaved our souls become. Only love sets us free, and only love will change our present-day culture of death into a society of genuine freedom and life. Jesus asks and expects each of us to do our part in spreading the Gospel by sharing His love.