By Kathryn Jean Lopez
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump visit the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C., June 2, 2020. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)
On Saint Patrick’s Day in 2016, United States secretary of state John Kerry acknowledged that a genocide was happening in Iraq and the surrounding region against Christians and other religious minorities. The ISIS threat was an existential one — as people fled their homes, it was not a given that they would remain, as any future for their children and their communities seemed unclear at best.
To this day, some of the families who fled Mosul still have not returned home.
But Saint Patrick’s Day in 2016 was a big day. They and their plight were being noticed by the United States, and because of the U.S., the Western world. And it was because of the Knights of Columbus.
Don’t take it from me, Stephen Rasche writes about their critical help in his new book The Disappearing People: The Tragic Fate of Christians in the Middle East. The charitable works, public policy, and communications aid the Knights of Columbus have given the persecuted Church is something that may one day prove to be a game-changing reason why there are any Christians left in what was once the cradle of Christianity.
The Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day that year, I was in a D.C. hotel restaurant interviewing Fr. Douglas Bazi, a Chaldean priest from Iraq. He has been kidnaped and tortured by Islamic militants. In that interview, I both apologized to him for my support for the Iraq war and asked him how he had the strength to hold onto his faith in Jesus Christ as a cigar was being burned into his skin and his teeth were being knocked out. He told me that God gives you the courage when you need it, when you are faithful to Him and want with everything in you to continue to be.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that conversation and that week lately. The Knights of Columbus have been on the front lines of so many critical needs — including the greatest human-rights movement of our lifetimes: the struggle against the evil of abortion. It’s a poison that infects so much of our lives — if we won’t protect the most vulnerable, the literal voiceless, of course we won’t protect so many who are vulnerable for so many reasons. When we will tolerate the most intimate violence against women and pretend it is basic health care and freedom, of course we will turn a blind eye toward all kinds of suffering, including the sin of racism.
And this week an injustice was done involving the Knights of Columbus. It pales in comparison to the seemingly clear murder of George Floyd. But it’s an injustice the same.
On Tuesday, the president and the First Lady went to one of my favorite places in D.C., the John Paul II Shrine, which is run by the Knights of Columbus. Its exhibits are primers on freedom and the human person. The previously planned visit was timed for the anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s first visit to his native Poland as pope, when the crowd interrupted his sermon crying “We want God.”
(These days, the desire for worship in our churches and the availability of the sacraments have some of us crying the same, albeit in indoor shelters as we have been obeying government guidelines.)
The Catholic archbishop of Washington said in a Tuesday morning statement before the visit to the shrine that it was “baffling” and “reprehensible” for a Catholic institution to host the president of the United States and the First Lady. Today I tuned into a Georgetown panel expecting that Archbishop Wilton Gregory might tone down his original statement a bit, having heard a few days’ worth of feedback about the facts of the planning of the event. Instead, he said that it was “the use of a sacred place . . . as a political ploy” and that the Shrine “should never have been used for a political statement.”
The problem is: It was not a political statement, unless you believe that the person of Donald Trump is incapable of a non-campaign rally, even when he is not speaking and on his best behavior. It was an American statement. It was a human statement. It was in defense of religious liberty, of humanity.
That having been said: The White House should have canceled or postponed the event, which was originally planned to include remarks and a signing of an executive order on international religious liberty. The president should not have gone there on Tuesday out of respect for the persecuted religious minorities throughout the world, the Knights of Columbus, and out of respect to the citizens legitimately angry about administration’s actions the night before. And if they didn’t have the courtesy to consider those, how about the obvious reality that the events of the night before made it near impossible for attention to be on the persecuted Christians and other religious minorities of the Middle East. Even without the White House missteps, American cities — including the capitol city — had been in flames for nights before.
We may prefer a different messenger in the president, but people in his administration have given a voice to some of the persecuted religious minorities in the world (the ministerials on religious liberty sponsored by the State Department are not the kinds of things that lead the news, but they were unprecedented). They have made religious freedom internationally a priority in foreign policy, and are seeking to change the culture of American foreign policy beyond them. In recent years, the exporting of some of our most radical cultural experiments has been tied to international help.
If you were watching live on C-SPAN, the visit looked odd. All we got to see was the president and the First Lady posing for pictures outside the shrine and looking at a stature of John Paul II. When photos were later released, we saw them kneeling in prayer and talking to a religious sister from the order of which St. Faustina Kowalska — a messenger of Jesus’s message of Divine Mercy and canonized by Pope John Paul II — was a member. (Heaven knows that’s a message we need.)
Someone probably also pointed out to Melania Trump that the mosaics throughout the chapel there were done by a Slovenian Jesuit priest (she was born in Slovenia).
The executive order from the administration was a step in the right direction, even if it got understandably and even appropriately lost in the news this week. Admonishment of the Knights of Columbus is not helpful. They do their part to help share the Gospel, walk with families, feed the poor, protect the most vulnerable, and fight genocide, and help families rebuild. And the list goes on. The Knights of Columbus deserve our thanks. They are some of the best of us.