Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Saint Leonella

I am not a Catholic. I am an agnostic who does not possess gnosis about God, but who believes in God, and has no knowledge of God apart from the tenuous, imperfect and interior experience of faith. Oriana Fallaci’s paradoxical and provocative definition of herself as a “Catholic atheist” I find to be helpful in cutting through the hypostatic barriers that have become erected in the modern West between faith and reason.

At any rate, I offer today’s essay in the spirit of solidarity which all modern Westerners must share in the face of an Islam Redivivus, and in admiration for the life and death of an Italian Catholic nun who was recently shot in the back in Somalia by Muslims. If these two Muslims were not specifically angered by the Pope’s recent ‘blasphemy’ against Islam and Mohammed (though it is probable they were, given that a Muslim cleric in the city in which she worked, Mogadishu, had put out a death fatwa the Friday before on anyone who insulted Mohammed and Islam), they were merely putting into concrete practice their inveterate hatred for those who practice shirk—those who, that is, in the theology of Islam, associate (or are merely suspected of associating) polytheistic ‘partners’ with the ruthlessly monotheistic Allah. The offending ‘partners’ in the case of Christianity are the divine Son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit who, together with the Father, constitute the God deemed, by mainstream Chrisitans, to be Trinity.

Today’s offering puts forward a humble suggestion to Pope Benedict XVI and to Catholics everywhere: Please submit for the process of canonization as a holy martyress and saint Sister Leonella Sgorbati, the 65-year-old Italian Catholic nun who had devoted her life to helping to minister, as a nurse, to the physical needs of sick and injured children in a pediatric hospital in Mogadishu—children who were, in many cases, Muslims from families who support and enable a culture that nourishes and institutionalizes intolerance and hatred for Catholics and for Christians in general, and indeed for all non-Muslims who dare to live lives that do not submit to the supremacy of Islam.

Saint Leonella—as I will refer to her in anticipatory honor—did not die the death of the typical martyr. The more usual death which Christian martyrs have suffered—whether in the era of Roman persecution or in the era of Islamic persecution (e.g., when Muslim rule, spread by the sword, extended across North Africa and into the Iberian Peninsula)—was a death the Christian man or woman knew with full clarity was coming. Typically, the Roman or Muslim authorities would demand that the Christian renounce or in some way vilify their own Christian belief, and the Christian would refuse, and then the authorities would execute the Christian. The Christian martyr in that case, then, was standing up for their faith, even though they knew full well they would be killed for it. In the case of Muslim Andalus (i.e., Muslim Spain), there was one period, at least (the 9th century A.D.), when a spate of Christian martyrs rose up spontaneously and seemingly going out of their way to incite the Muslims to practice their barbaric penalty—decapitation—for the offense of denouncing Mohammed and the Koran. Some Christians at the time denounced these particular martyrs, but it is not clear whether they had a problem with the activist behavior of the martyrs, or whether they objected to the increased danger which their provocations placed the general Christian population under their always precarious position they had to bear as dhimmis under Muslim rule and in the midst of hateful and intolerant Muslim civilians.

Although the historian Kenneth Baxter Wolf in his on-line book on this subject seems to obfuscate the issue, it is evident from his own treatment of the historical evidence that these ‘spontaneous’ martyrs were criticized by certain fellow Christians out of fear of rocking the boat. This ‘boat’ was the ongoing daily life Christians had to live within a triumphalist Muslim society which, depending on the whims of the Muslim ruler (as well as the hatred and intolerance of the Muslim people against Christians)—whose increased degree of mercy would depend on him
not taking to heart the Koran and subsequent Islamic jurisprudence—was always unpredictable, precarious and deeply insulting to the basic dignity of the conquered Christians.

The death—the martyrdom—of Saint Leonella fits neither the classical type nor the ‘spontaneous’ type in Christian history. She was not given the chance to stand boldly before a Roman magistrate or Islamic qadi and refuse to disavow her Gospel, nor did she go out in public, with the intent of courting punishment, into the midst of Muslims and start denouncing Mohammed as a false prophet and Islam as a false religion. Indeed, she lived and worked in the midst of Muslims trying to help their children’s needs in hospitals. Nevertheless, she practiced her work of charity with a bodyguard attending her—an indication that she knew full well the dangers of being a Christian in the midst of a Muslim population that was undergoing the process, frequent in Muslim history, of Islamicizing the land (in this case, Somalia) over which, by force of arms, they had recently gained sociopolitical dominance. She may have been na├»ve by the standards of those of us who are awake to the dangers of an Islam Redivivus: when asked by her fellow Sisters if she was not afraid of having to work every day in a situation dangerous enough to require a bodyguard, she responded, “We are in the hands of God. We cannot abandon these people.” For Saint Leonella, “these people” were the poor Africans—Muslims among them—whom she had for some 40 years devoted her life to help, in the process learning to speak the native Somalian language fluently.

No, Saint Leonella did not have the benefit, as did the typical Christian martyrs in history, of standing tall to face her executers. She was shot in the back by a Muslim coward and his accomplice—three times, and fell to the floor critically wounded, only to die later in her hospital bed. Her bodyguard, a young man with children of his own, was also shot and died 20 minutes before she did. As fellow Catholic Sister Marcia recounted:

“Before she was extinguished like a votive candle from this life, she repeated three times, ‘I forgive, I forgive, I forgive’, and then she went in peace, awake and conscious to the very end.”

While the Islamic Courts issued an immediate statement decrying the “barbarous murder” and promised to apprehend and bring to justice the assassins, and while crowds of weeping Somalians filled the courtyard outside the hospital where she died, nevertheless, as Muslims, they continue to nourish the culture that gave the murderers of Saint Leonella the sense of righteous and divinely mandated hatred that motivates too many similar Muslims around the world. Indeed, in 2003, a Catholic lay missionary, Annalena Tonelli, 60 years old—34 of those years spent helping and loving Somalian Muslims, to whom she considered herself spiritually “married” —, was shot fatally in the head at a hospital in Borama, Somaliland, by a Muslim; and in 1998, the fellow Sister of Leonella whom we quoted above, Marcia, was kidnapped by Muslims, but thankfully was set free by the intercession of others. (For more about the incessantly savage socio-cultural pathologies of Somalian Islam, see this article.)

And as we mentioned above, on September 15—the Friday before Sister Leonella’s murder—, during a sermon in a mosque in Mogadishu, a Muslim cleric, Sheikh Abubakar Hassan Malin, roused to a perfectly Islamic indignation by the Pope’s speech of September 12, exhorted—or should we say reminded?—Muslims to hunt down and kill anyone who insults Mohammed and Islam: for, as he was quoted in the New York Times at the time (September 17, 2006):

“Whoever offends our Prophet Muhammad should be killed on the spot by the nearest Muslim.”

Saint Leonella was martyred while practicing love—to the eternal shame of Muslims everywhere, whether they wake up to be touched by that love before it is too late, or not.


Dum VITA est spes est said...

Beautiful.Thanks for writing this.

Kab bin Ashraf said...


Arch here. Great article. Are you sending it, or some version of it, to the Vatican?

Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing a link to this over at The Black Cordelias!

Very fine work!